Surveillance Strategy Report — Modernizing Mortality Reporting

tracking deaths

Data We Count On

Death certificates were one of the first sources of public health surveillance data. When we look at mortality data, every death certificate tells a story. When viewed collectively, they uncover health disparities, inform policy and funding decisions, and improve outbreak and disaster response efforts. Information from death certificates is increasingly used to expose and address a national crisis—drug-poisoning deaths. Improving reporting of the specific drug(s) on the death certificate is one way to help save future lives.

Vital Statistics

Birth and death data—known as vital statistics—provide a valuable picture of the nation’s health. Mortality surveillance tracks the characteristics of those dying in the United States, helps determine life expectancy, and allows comparisons of death trends with other countries. How people die provides insights into health threats encountered when they lived.

Why It Matters

Mortality data are used routinely to:

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Detect initial cases of infectious diseases, trauma, and toxicity that might signal a larger public health emergency

heart rate

Monitor specific preventable deaths, like drug-poisoning deaths, and craft a public health response


Raise awareness of issues like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, child nutrition, Alzheimer’s disease, and suicide


Provide insights on what steps can be taken to prevent further lives lost

“Specificity about a death today could help save a life tomorrow. For example, a death certificate needs to say more than something vague like ‘opioid intoxication’ to help both law enforcement and public health officials curb the distribution—and hopefully abuse—of opioids.”
James Gill, MD
Chief Medical Examiner, state of Connecticut

Putting Data to Work: Numbers Tell the Story

Our federal data assets are only as strong as our state and local resources. Tracking and reporting mortality is a complex and decentralized process with a variety of systems used by more than 6,000 local vital registrars to report death. State, local, and territorial authorities—known as jurisdictions—are responsible for the legal registration and record of death. CDC, through the National Center for Health Statistics, finalizes and releases the data once all authorities have reported.

CDC and local authorities are working together as part of CDC’s strategy to improve surveillance data to advance how quickly deaths are recorded and reported



Paper-based systems are being replaced with modern Web-based technologies, and outdated electronic systems are being upgraded


More timely data are being made available through the early release of information from death certificates through quarterly and special reports
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Electronic health records and other tools are being leveraged to integrate death reporting into physicians’ daily workflows


Systems are being developed to validate mortality data before they are sent to the states

Moving the Dial: Improved Reporting, More Answers

2.6 Million

Approximate number of U.S. deaths analyzed annually through CDC’s National Vital Statistics System

63 Percent

Percent of death records reported
to CDC within 10 days—
up from 7% in 2010

1 Day

Goal for all jurisdictions to
report registered deaths to
public health agencies