Provisional Monthly Drug Overdose Deaths from July 2019 to July 2020

February 17, 2021

On Wednesday (February 17) NCHS released the next set of monthly provisional drug overdose death counts.

Provisional data show that the reported number of drug overdose deaths occurring in the United States increased by 22.8% from the 12 months ending in July 2019 to the 12 months ending in July 2020, from  68,023 to  83,544.  After adjustments for delayed reporting, the predicted number of drug overdose deaths showed an increase of 24.2% from the 12 months ending in July 2019 to the 12 months ending in July 2020, from 69,266 to  86,001.

The reported number of opioid-involved drug overdose deaths in the United States for the 12-month period ending in July 2020 (61,297) increased from 47,474 in the previous year. The predicted number of opioid-involved drug overdose deaths in the United States for the 12-month period ending in July 2020 (63,129) increased from 48,429 in the previous year. Recent trends may still be partially due to incomplete data.

The reported and predicted number of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids (excluding methadone; T40.4) and psychostimulants with abuse potential (T43.6) continued to increase compared to the previous year. Both reported and predicted overdose deaths involving cocaine increased compared to the previous year. The reported and predicted number of natural and semi-synthetic opioid deaths also increased compared to the previous year


PODCAST: Quarterly NHIS Early Release Key Health Indicator Estimates

February 12, 2021

STATCAST, FEBRUARY 2021: DISCUSSION WITH TAINYA CLARKE, A STATISTICIAN WITH NHIS, ABOUT LATEST QUARTERLY NHIS EARLY RELEASE KEY HEALTH INDICATOR ESTIMATES.

HOST:  This week NCHS released its latest quarterly estimates on a number of key health indicators from the National Health Interview Survey, one of the oldest health surveys in US history dating back to 1957. This latest quarterly release covers the period up to the midpoint of 2020.  Health data from NHIS have always been driven by the types of questions asked in this traditionally in-person survey and in order to improve the quality of data the survey has been redesigned on occasion over the years, most recently in 2019. Tainya Clarke, an epidemiologist with the survey, elaborates:

TAINYA CLARKE:   The NHIS underwent a survey redesign to better meet the needs of data users.  Some questions were dropped from the survey, new questions were added, and some question text or the order they appear changed.  All these changes mean that the NHIS survey for 2019 going forward is quite distinct from the past survey.  In addition to the questionnaire design, changes made to the weighting approach have the potential to impact direct comparisons between the estimates for 2019 to June 2020 and earlier years.  Because of this we have not examined trends prior to 2019 in this release.

HOST:  The last time the NHIS was redesigned was in 1997.  That redesign laid the foundation for the creation of the early release program, which features quarterly preliminary estimates on a number of high profile health topics.  The 2019 redesign introduced several new topics to the survey.  However, the arrival of the pandemic in 2020 forced more changes to the way the survey operates, which in turn has had an impact on response rates:

TAINYA CLARKE:    Due to the current pandemic and the need for physical distancing, in quarter two we switched to a telephone-only approach, and in quarter three and four a telephone-first approach and followed up in person for households with no response or without a listed telephone contact.   We may have some new questions on COVID-19 and related health behaviors added in the future early releases.  So we’re not quite sure what those questions will be – only time will tell.

HOST:  In recent years this release has switched from a publication-based format to an interactive web-based data visualization format.  But there remains a gold mine of important data topics in this quarterly release.  For example, hypertension among adults is now being tracked, which is important particularly now during the pandemic with high blood pressure being a major risk factor for people with COVID-19.

TAINYA CLARKE:   The early release data in 2019 and the first half of 2020 showed that about 1/4 of US adults have been diagnosed with hypertension in the past 12 months, and the prevalence is highest among non-Hispanic Blacks, with more than one in three having hypertension in the past 12 months.

HOST:  The NHIS has tracked cigarette smoking among adults since the 1960s, and has documented along running decline in the percentage of adults who smoke.  Cigarette smoking is also one of the topics featured in this week’s new quarterly release showing that an all-time low of 12.2% of American adults were current cigarette smokers in Quarter Two of 2020.  And recently, the NHIS has added E-cigarette use to this quarterly release.

TAINYA CLARKE:   In 2019 we had approximately 4.4% of adults using E-cigarettes.  The percentage is even lower in January to June 2020 at 3.6%.

HOST:  Some of these second quarter estimates from 2020 may indeed reflect the impact of the pandemic on the country.  However, many of the survey questions are based on the past 12 months, so any direct connection to the pandemic is inconclusive.  This includes the second quarter 2020 finding that a higher percentage of adults are seeking mental health counseling, as well as the fact that a lower percentage of adults visited the emergency Department during this period. Another important measure featured in this quarterly release is flu vaccination.  Nearly half of adults reported they received a flu vaccine, according to data from the second quarter of 2020.  But Tainya Clarke says some context is needed when interpreting those immunization numbers.

TAINYA CLARKE:   I think I want to point out that even though this is almost 50% – and to some people that may seem like a large percentage – the target for vaccinating adults against influenza is much higher.  It’s closer to 70% for HP 2020 – that’s a Healthy People 2020 initiative.  And although that initiative is targeted at seasonal flu, we really hope to see a larger percentage of the U.S. adult population receiving more flu vaccines going forward.

HOST:  The latest quarterly release of data from the NHIS also includes new data on health insurance coverage in America.  During the first half of 2020, over 30 million Americans – or 9.4% – were uninsured at the time they were interviewed as part of the survey.  This proportion of the population who had no insurance includes over 13% of those ages 18 to 64.  In this age group, a little more than one in five had public health insurance and a little more than 2/3 had private insurance.  The poor or near poor in this age group were more likely to be uninsured than those who are not poor. Hispanic adults in this 18 to 64 age group were twice as likely to be uninsured as non-Hispanic black adults and nearly three times as likely as non-Hispanic white or non-Hispanic Asian adults.  Among children under age 18, less than 5% were uninsured, and among those who did have insurance over 41% had public coverage and over 56% had private coverage.

HOST:  Our thanks to Tainya Clarke of the National Health Interview Survey for joining us on this edition of “Statcast.”  Join us next week for a special segment on data related to the pandemic’s impact on life expectancy.


QuickStats: Trends in Secondhand Smoke Exposure Among Nonsmoking Adults, by Race† and Hispanic Origin — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 2009–2018

February 12, 2021

The percentage of nonsmoking adults exposed to secondhand smoke (SHS) declined from 27.7% in 2009–2010 to 20.7% in 2017–2018.

During this period, decreasing trends in the percentage of persons with SHS exposure also were observed for nonsmoking non-Hispanic White, non-Hispanic Black, and Hispanic adults.

There was no significant decline in the percentage of persons with exposure for nonsmoking non-Hispanic Asian adults from 2011–2012 to 2017–2018.

The percentage of persons with SHS exposure was consistently higher for nonsmoking non-Hispanic Black adults throughout the period.

During 2017–2018, 41.5% of nonsmoking non-Hispanic Black adults were exposed to SHS compared with 22.7% non-Hispanic Asian, 17.8% non-Hispanic White, and 16.2% nonsmoking Hispanic adults.

Source: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7006a6.htm


National Health Interview Survey Early Release Updates

February 11, 2021

The Early Release Program of the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) publishes selected health estimates from an expedited schedule.

New Interactive quarterly and biannual early release estimates provide health statistics based on data from the 2019-June 2020 NHIS for selected health topics for adults aged 18 years and over.

New report on health insurance coverage provide detailed estimates from the 2019-June 2020 NHIS.  There are also health insurance quarterly web table estimates available for April–December 2019 and January–March 2020.

Wireless Substitution: Early Release of Estimates from the National Health Interview Survey, looks at household telephone status from January through June 2020.  This includes updated estimates of the size of the wireless-only and wireless-mostly population.


QuickStats: Death Rates for Motor-Vehicle–Traffic Injuries, Suicide, and Homicide Among Adolescents and Young Adults Aged 15–24 Years — United States, 1999–2019

February 5, 2021

Mortality rates for adolescents and young adults aged 15–24 years for deaths from motor-vehicle–traffic injury, suicide, and homicide remained relatively stable during 1999–2006 and then exhibited different patterns through 2019.

In 1999, the rate for motor-vehicle–traffic deaths was 25.6 per 100,000 population and declined to 13.7 in 2019. The suicide rate was 10.1 in 1999 and increased to 14.5 in 2018 before declining to 13.9 in 2019.

The homicide rate was 12.9 in 1999 and declined to 9.5 in 2014 before increasing to 11.2 in 2019.

In 2019, the death rates for motor-vehicle–traffic injury and suicide were similar; both rates were higher than the homicide rate.

Source: National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality Data, 2009–2019. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/deaths.htm

https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7005a6.htm


PODCAST: Secondhand Smoke Exposure among U.S. Adults

February 5, 2021

STATCAST, FEBRUARY 2021: DISCUSSION WITH DEBRA BRODY, AN EPIDEMIOLOGIST WITH NHANES, ABOUT SECONDHAND SMOKE EXPOSURE AMONG ADULTS.

https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/podcasts/2021/20210205/20210205.htm

TRANSCRIPT

HOST:  Today we welcome Debra Brody, an epidemiologist with NCHS’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES.  Debra has been studying trends and exposure to secondhand smoke in America and has just authored a new study focusing on secondhand smoke exposure among adults in the U.S.

HOST:  First off, what are some of the reasons why secondhand smoke is a public health threat and what did you set out to accomplish with this new study?

DEBRA BRODY:  Well, I want to begin by defining secondhand smoke and that is the smoke that is breathed in involuntarily from the burning tobacco of smokers.  And because it contains toxic chemicals, it has many of the same harmful health risks to non-smokers as tobacco smoke has to active smokers.  And this would include increased risks of respiratory diseases, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.  So the bottom line is that no amount of exposure to secondhand smoke is safe. And while we can not determine the exact source of exposure, our goal was to assess the current proportion of the non-smoking adult population in the U.S. who are exposed to the burning smoke of others.

HOST:  So how does NHANES measure secondhand smoke?

DEBRA BRODY:   So NHANES is a national survey that assesses the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the U.S., and the survey is unique in that it combines interviews with physical exams and laboratory testing. So as part of the laboratory component, we draw blood from our participants and measure cotinine levels.  Cotinine is a metabolite of the chemical nicotine that’s found in tobacco smoke.  And cotinine provides a good measurement of the amount of nicotine a person has in his or her body due to tobacco inhalation.  So persons who don’t smoke should not have any cotinine in their system unless they breathe in smoke from other people’s tobacco.  In this report, secondhand smoke is based on having a certain level of cotinine in the blood, indicating current exposure to tobacco smoke.

HOST:  With the growth of E-cigarettes, is there a way to measure secondhand smoke with that?

DEBRA BRODY:   That’s a good question.  So we can’t distinguish from the cotinine level the source of the tobacco product.  So we don’t know whether it’s based on cigarette smoking or cigar, pipe, or hookas or possibly even from the vapor from E-cigarettes.

HOST:  I see.  So how many folks participated in this study?

DEBRA BRODY:  Our report focuses on data from non-smoking adults during the period of 2015 to 2018, and in this four-year period there were about 7,600 non-smoking adults who were 18 years and older who had blood drawn during the examination and answered questions about their smoking status and their current tobacco use.  But I want to mention NHANES is a population-based survey and is nationally representative of all adults in the U.S.

HOST:  So what’s the bottom line here?  How prevalent is secondhand exposure in the adult population?

DEBRA BRODY:  So we found that 20.8% or about one in five non-smoking adults 18 years and older were exposed to secondhand smoke.  Overall, we found the percentage of secondhand smoke exposure was similar for men and women.

HOST:  So how has this changed over time?

DEBRA BRODY:   If we look back to when we first measured cotinine in the survey – and that was in the late 80’s – and at that time close to 90% of all Americans were exposed to secondhand smoke.  Now, in this report we examine the change in exposure prevalences over a 10-year period. So that would be since 2009-2010.  Across the 10-year timeframe we observed a downward trend overall.

HOST:  So this isn’t part of your study of course but you mentioned that when you originally started measuring this back in the late 80’s, ninety percent of adults were exposed. I trust that what has happened is we’ve seen the results since then of all the smoke-free establishments?

DEBRA BRODY:    Yeah that’s really a good question.  So exposure has steadily decreased in the U.S. obviously with increases in regulatory oversight concerning smoke-free indoor air quality.  And then individual policies regarding smoking in homes and cars, and then declines in smoking, particularly cigarette smoking overall.

HOST:  So are your findings consistent with other studies on secondhand smoke?

DEBRA BRODY:   As I mentioned, NHANES is a national survey representing the U.S. population and has been measuring secondhand smoke exposure using a biomarker – that is cotinine – for more than 40 years.  While there are some other surveys focused on tobacco smoke, there really isn’t any other survey that has measured exposure like this among non-tobacco users over so many years.

HOST:  And what groups of people are more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke?

DEBRA BRODY:    We saw that exposure was disproportionately more prevalent among non-Hispanic blacks compared to non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic Asians, and Hispanic adults.  There are other findings from this report that highlight what we might say is a “health equity” concern as well.  We found that the prevalence of secondhand smoke exposure increased with decreasing level of family income and that the percentage of exposure also increased with decreasing education levels.

HOST:  Now are children more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke than adults? Do we know about that?

DEBRA BRODY:    We did not include children for this short report but we have focused on youths in other reports.  We do know the percentage of secondhand smoke exposure in children exceeds adult prevalences, and it may be because of the involuntary nature of exposure.  Children may not be able to protect themselves from possible sources whereas adults can protect themselves and may be able to stay away from others who are smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products.

HOST:  One more question:  Are there plans for any pains to continue to track secondhand smoke exposure in the population?

DEBRA BRODY:    Yes.  Our measurements of the cotinine levels will continue to be collected in future NHANES studies in order to track progress in reducing all secondhand smoke exposure.

HOST:  Our thanks to Debra Brody for joining us to discuss her new research on secondhand smoke exposure among American adults.  The new report was released yesterday, on February 4th.

HOST:  Today, there is another new report from NHANES – this one on fruit and vegetable consumption among American adults.  The new report features 2015-2018 data, and shows that 2/3 of adults age 20 and up consume fruit on a given day and over 9 in 10 consume vegetables.  The study shows that more women consume fruit than men, whereas an equal percentage of women and men consume vegetables.  Income level seems to play a key role here.  As the level of income rises among adults, so does fruit and vegetable consumption.  While vegetable consumption among adults has remained essentially unchanged over the past two decades, fruit consumption has decreased since 1999-2000, when over three quarters of adults consumed fruit on a given day.

This has been another edition… of “Statcast.”  Next week we’ll be discussing the latest quarterly health indicators from the National Health Interview Survey.


Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Among Adults in the United States, 2015–2018

February 5, 2021

A new NCHS report examines the percentage of adults aged 20 and over who consumed fruit and vegetables on a given day by sex and income in 2015–2018 and trends in fruit and vegetable consumption.

Key Findings:

  • More than two-thirds (67.3%) of adults aged 20 and over consumed any fruit on a given day, and fruit consumption was higher among women (70.5%) compared with men (63.8%).
  • Approximately 95% of adults consumed any vegetables on a given day.
  • The percentage of adults who consumed any fruit; citrus, melon, or berries; and other types of whole fruit on a given day increased with income.
  • The percentage of adults who consumed dark green, red and orange, other vegetables, and any vegetable types on a given day increased with income.
  • The percentage of adults who consumed any fruit on a given day decreased from 77.2% in 1999–2000 to 64.9% in 2017–2018, but there was no change in the percentage consuming any vegetables.

American Heart Month 2021

February 3, 2021

February is American Heart Month. Heart Disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the United States with over 659,000 deaths in 2019.  Heart disease death rates have declined by almost 40 % from 1999 to 2019.  However, the provisional death rate for heart disease during the second quarter of 2020 was 166 deaths per 100,000, up from 159 during the same time in 2019.

There are over 30 million U.S. adults that have been diagnosed with any type of heart disease.  More than 8 million emergency department visits involve coronary artery disease, ischemic heart disease or history of myocardial infarction.


NCHS Podcast Series

February 1, 2021

CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) produces a short podcast series, “Statcast,” which posts on the NCHS web site every Friday morning.  The podcasts are 5-10 minutes in length and feature an interview with an NCHS subject matter expert on a specific health topic along with a summary of that week’s NCHS data releases.

Last Friday, we wrapped up a four-part series on death certificate data in the U.S. with NCHS Mortality Statistics Chief Robert Anderson.  The full four-part interview (and transcript) can be found at the following link.

If you are interested in learning more about the podcasts, in general or on specific topics, please let the NCHS Press Office know at paoquery@cdc.gov.


Death Certificates & The Process That Produces National Mortality Data in the U.S.

February 1, 2021

STATCAST, JANUARY 2021: DISCUSSION WITH ROBERT ANDERSON, CHIEF OF MORTALITY STATISTICS, ABOUT DEATH CERTIFICATE DATA. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/podcasts/2021/20210201/20210201.htm

HOST: Death certificates serve a very important legal purpose in the United States.  The death certificate is the only legal proof that a person has died, and the State uses it to stop social security payments, pensions, and other benefits.  Families use the death certificate to settle their affairs.  Reporting of death began back at the dawn of the 20th century – in 1900 – and the information required on death certificates has helped monitor and reflect how society is changing. But there is also a vital role that death certificate information plays in public health as well.

We’re joined today by Dr. Robert Anderson, the Chief of Mortality Statistics at CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

HOST:  So data from the death certificate has guided public health policy for now over a century.  Can you touch on a few historical examples of how these data has informed and guided public health over the years?

 ROBERT ANDERSON:  They’ve been used to surveil influenza mortality for quite a long time and also to document and track deaths due to epidemics including HIV, drug overdoses, and most recently COVID-19.

HOST: This goes back to the beginning of the 20th century – so how is the information that’s required on the death certificate, how has that changed over the years?

ROBERT ANDERSON:  Well every so often the U.S. standard certificate of death is revised, and this is a guidance document that is produced in collaboration with state vital registration offices to sort of standardize the information on the death certificate and there have been changes over time.  The cause of death section was revised some 60, 70 years ago to elicit a more useful underlying cause of death. We’ve had additions to information on race and Hispanic origin that have been added over time.  Most of the other demographic information has pretty well stayed the same from the beginning. What the overall content of the death certificate has shifted slightly over time to give us an additional information that’s useful to us from a public health standpoint. And of course we’ve been better able to retain information as we moved into the electronic age as storage of data has improved and gotten cheaper. We’ve been able to retain more information than bring to in the past.

HOST: So for those who aren’t familiar with the process, could you sort of walk through that, from the moment a person dies to the endpoint when NCHS actually publishes analysis of the death certificate data?  Could you sort of walk us through what happens?

ROBERT ANDERSON:  Yeah when a person dies, state laws require that a death certificate be completed and registered.  And then typically, the funeral director starts the record and provides personal and demographic information about the decedent.  Then a physician, medical examiner, coroner — depending on the circumstances — provides the cause of death information.  Now, in most cases, these days this is done electronically using electronic death registration system.  Most states have these electronic systems and in those states most of the records are filed and registered electronically.  Now once the death is registered with the state, the statistical information from the death certificate is then sent to NCHS which incorporates it into the national data file. National Statistics have been generated from that data file and then the data and statistical reports are released to the public when they’re all ready to go.

HOST: So the people who actually fill out the death certificates — these are doctors, medical examiners, coroners — they’re trained to follow certain steps when they fill out the certs.  Can you explain a little bit about the steps they’re supposed to follow?

ROBERT ANDERSON:  Sure, yeah you know the physicians, medical examiners, and coroners they’re the ones that provide the cause of death information, so the funeral directors typically provide the demographic information and that’s generally straightforward.  The cause of death, however, is not as straightforward.  The death certificate is really designed to elicit an underlying cause of death and the underlying cause of death is defined as the disease or injury that started the chain of events leading to death.  And this is considered to be most useful information from a public health standpoint.  The idea is that if we can prevent the underlying cause, then we can stop that chain of events from happening altogether.  So the physician, medical examiner, and coroner — and the physicians will typically certify the cause of death when that cause is natural, the medical examiners and coroners typically handle injury-related deaths, suspicious deaths or deaths where the decedent wasn’t attended by a physician. So these folks are instructed to report a causal sequence beginning with the immediate cause and then working back to an underlying cause.  So for example, we might see a chain of events such as acute respiratory distress due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  So acute respiratory distress would be the immediate cause of death and then the COPD – the chronic instructed pulmonary disease – would be the underlying cause of death.  The idea is that the COPD caused the acute respiratory distress, which caused death and so the main focus is going to be on that COPD, rather than the acute respiratory distress, because we want to get at that underlying cause.  The certifiers are also asked to include any other conditions and diseases that may have contributed to death but were part of that causal sequence.

HOST: Now it’s time to take a look at new data released this week by NCHS.  A new report on Tuesday shows that one out of 10 emergency department visits in the United States involves some form of respiratory illness.  The report uses comparable years of data from the National Hospital Care Survey and the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey.  Also on Wednesday, the latest data from the Household Pulse Survey was released, documenting that nearly 40% of adults delayed or did not receive needed medical care in the last four weeks because of the ongoing pandemic.  The data were collected from December 9th through the 21st and represent an increase from data collected in October.  Over 42% of adults experienced symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, or both, in the last week.  Over 56% of adults ages 18 to 29 have experienced these symptoms.  And over 12% of adults say that they needed mental health counseling or therapy but did not get it in the past four weeks.

HOST: What happens in the instance if the certifiers cut corners or fill out the death certificate quickly and maybe leave out certain things…how does that impact the data?

ROBERT ANDERSON:  Well there are really two issues that we see with cause of death certification, two main issues. Sometimes certifiers leave out the underlying cause and sometimes that they will provide an underlying cause but not provide sufficient details.  So for example we see sometimes acute kidney failure as the cause of death.  There would be a lot of other causes of death that would be applicable here but acute kidney failures is I think illustrative.  In most cases this is probably not incorrect – the decedent may very well have died from acute kidney failure but it’s not really enough information. Acute kidney failure is typically caused by something else and we need to know what that underlying cause was.  Was it diabetes?  An infection?  High blood pressure?  Or some specific disease affecting the kidney?  There are bunch of things that can cause acute kidney failure.  We need to know that information. We didn’t know what that underlying cause was because that’s what we want to focus on from the public health standpoint.

HOST:  Is there anything that can be done when this sort of thing turns up? I mean, is there any follow up or once its complete basically that’s what we have to deal with?

ROBERT ANDERSON:   Well unfortunately once it’s complete that’s generally what we have to deal with.  In an ideal world, all death certificates get reviewed by an expert and information is correct or added as appropriate.  Unfortunately, resources are such that that’s not a practical solution.  So very often we just have to deal with what’s given to us.  Yeah, we also deal with this issue where the underlying cause may be provided we don’t get sufficient detail and drug overdoses provide a good example of where the lack sufficient detail is a problem.  In these cases, sometimes we’ll simply see just “drug overdose” or “multi drug toxicity” reported on the death certificate.  And again, while this is probably not incorrect, we really need to know which drugs were involved.  If all we get is “drug overdose” we don’t know – was it a heroin overdose? Was it a fentanyl overdose?  And knowing which drugs were involved helps us to better understand the nature of the public health problem that we’re dealing with.

HOST:   Usually, when you have a high profile person dying of an overdose there’s often a long period where they’re waiting for the toxicology report.  Does that restrict certifiers getting details like that for the death certificate?

ROBERT ANDERSON:    It really doesn’t.  In most instances when a death investigation is required it’s going to take more than a few days.  The cause of death can be certified pending investigation.  And so that’s typically the way these are handled – the medical examiner or coroner who deal with the drug overdose deaths, they will file the death certificate with the cause and manner of death pending investigation.  And then, so we will get actually that fact of death with pending cause in a very timely manner.  Then once the death investigation is done, the medical examiner or coroner can go into the system and update the cause of death – that’s actually the way they’re supposed to do it, they go in, they amend the certificate with the new cause of death information and then that information is transmitted to us.  So, while we may get the fact of death in a very timely fashion for drug overdose deaths, we very often don’t get cause of death until maybe three to six months later.

HOST:  So the data that NCHS ultimately publishes – that’s coming from all the death certificates in the country that are recorded.  It’s not just a sample of death certificates like we would get with a survey sample for example, is that right?

ROBERT ANDERSON:   That’s right.  Yeah, we don’t do, we’re not sampling data here.  All deaths are required to be registered and we collect all of these from the states for the national statistics.  Now, that doesn’t mean that when we publish information that we necessarily have all of them in that moment.  We do publish some provisional data that are incomplete.  Our final statistics are based on all deaths registered and sent to us by the states.

HOST:  Before we get to the provisional vs. final topic, can you – I know the number changes each year – but how many death certificates are we talking about roughly each year?

ROBERT ANDERSON:   We’re talking about in the most recent years about 2.8 million – 2.8 million deaths in a year.

HOST:  Right.  And so as the population grows you’re going to see more of a volume to go through.

ROBERT ANDERSON:   Yeah that’s certainly what we’ve seen. I mean not only has the population been growing but the population has been aging somewhat and of course an aging population means more deaths as well because older people are more likely to die.  So yes we have been seeing increases in the total number of deaths over time even though in most instances the death rate has come down.

HOST:  Right.  And the death rate is the number of deaths per a certain number of population is that right?

ROBERT ANDERSON:  That’s correct.  Yeah, usually .for mortality we characterize it as deaths per 100,000.

HOST: You touched on provisional data – could you walk us through what provisional death data is and then also explain when the data are final?

ROBERT ANDERSON: So the provisional data allows us to see a picture – an incomplete picture – of the situation with regard to mortality in a much more timely fashion. So when we provide data that are incomplete we will call it provisional because it will change over time as more information comes in. We generally have to wait nearly a year after the end of the data year to have final data ready. Now in contrast, we’ve already been releasing provisional data for 2020 but those data are incomplete and subject to change but they do allow us to see a picture, albeit incomplete of the situation with regard to mortality.

HOST: So then the final data are basically when 100% of the death certificates have been recorded and analyzed is that correct?

ROBERT ANDERSON: Yeah that’s correct – those data have been thoroughly checked and we’ve made any corrections that are needed and we feel comfortable that these can form the basis for official mortality statistics.

HOST: So what explains the lag time in the data and the different times each year the date are released? Some years it comes out earlier and other years not as early.

ROBERT ANDERSON: At the national level we’re only as fast as our slowest state so we have to wait to get this information in from the states because we want to have all deaths represented from all states. And there’s quite a bit of variation in timeliness by state and in cases where lengthy death investigations may be needed and the jurisdictions may be strapped for resources, it may take several months to get the cause of death information. Some states – there are a few states that don’t have electronic systems and so they tend to be slower as well. And so we really have to wait to get all of the information in and if we have one really slow state, that may slow us down a bit. In addition, if we find significant problems with the data, the data file, that may take some time as well so normally we go back and forth with the state to make sure that we understand what the problems are and that they are corrected to the extent that we can correct them. And so if we identify significant problems – and this does happen sometimes, particularly as states are implementing electronic systems or maybe implementing new electronic systems, there tend to be bugs in the system and we find issues and those really have to be corrected because we want the data to be as accurate as possible. So when those things arise, that may cause us to adjust the release date for the file data. We don’t have a sort of “static release date” where we release on the same day every year – it really depends on how long it takes to make sure that the data are as accurate as we as they can be.

HOST: So as far as NCHS’s analysis on death certificate data… NCHS does not go into all areas of analysis – sometimes there’s outside research done. Is there untapped information on the death certificate that that could be useful for the public health community – what’s your thoughts on that?

ROBERT ANDERSON: Well I mean you’re right that we don’t we don’t publish on every item on the death certificate in our standard reports. There are some information there that we don’t publish on. We do make the data file available and the data is a public use data file but has some limited information. And then there are some other files that require a research proposal and a data usage agreement that have additional information. Those are made available to researchers and researchers can do that but one thing in particular that I’ll mention that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention but should is what we call multiple cause data. Now I talked about underlying cause information before and the basic official national statistics are based on underlying cause. But multiple cause information is important. We record all of the causes that are reported on the death certificate. So we record that entire causal sequence that’s reported and we also record any contributing conditions as well. And so there’s a lot I think of good information in those multiple cause fields that can be used and one thing that we’ve just begun to start looking at in the last several years is specific drug information which is gleaned from that, from those multiple cause fields. The underlying cause may be due to overdose due to heroin or whatever but there may be multiple drugs reported or there may be some other information in there that can be useful in those multiple cause fields. So that’s something that we don’t typically publish on – it’s quite complicated to present a statistical picture based on multiple cause but that could be very useful I think from a research standpoint.

HOST: So NCHS is the agency that ranks the leading causes of death in the country, and this is based on data from the death certificates. Could you tell us a little bit of how NCHS goes about ranking leading causes of death?

ROBERT ANDERSON: Sure, well we have a standard tabulation list that we use typically to present cause of death data and the causes that are eligible to be ranked are determined by that cause list. So you know, there’s this nothing sort of magical about leading causes of death – I mean we decide which causes can be ranked and then we rank them you see that list. Other lists could be used and other lists are used in different countries or on an international level for ranking. The rankings for the United States in comparison with other countries, for example, that may look a little bit different but in the United States we have a sort of standard process for ranking leading causes and we try to keep that process as consistent over time as possible because those rankings actually are used for planning and funding in those agencies responsible for doing this work.

HOST: OK – and then another topic that NCHS is the source for is longevity, or life expectancy in the U.S. How does the death certificate data help us learn about that?

ROBERT ANDERSON: Right. So you know, life expectancy information is derived from the death certificate data. Now in this case we don’t need cause of death because we are only interested in whether people die or not, and so the life expectancy is based on the information. And what we do is we construct a life table based on all of the death certificates and life expectancy is derived from that table.

HOST: One more question here – what about future initiatives or modifications that might be in the works to build on what we have already in terms of information on the death certificate?

ROBERT ANDERSON:   Yeah there’s a couple of things that we’ve been working on, and one of these involves improving timeliness. We’ve seen dramatic improvements in times over the last few years, but there’s still more improvement that could be made. And that mainly involves development of electronic registration systems – these have had the biggest impact on timeliness in the past. And making these systems interoperable with other systems – for example, systems that involve electronic medical records our systems that involve medical examiner or corner records. If we can make these systems talk to each other, we can get more timely information because then information doesn’t then have to be transferred manually from one system to another system. This can also help us with the quality of the data as well, which is another thing that we’re really working on. If the physician, medical examiner, coroner that has to certify the cause of death has information from the, let’s say the electronic health record, at their fingertips then they have better information on which to base the cause of death statement. So these are these are things that we’re working on right now and we hope to see improvements, further improvements in timeliness and improvements in the quality of the data as we move forward.

HOST: So to follow up on that, you had mentioned about the provisional data being incomplete. Is it possible then that in the future provisional data may be more complete or might provide more details?

ROBERT ANDERSON:   Yeah that’s the hope, is that if we can improve the timeliness of the data that allows us to get a more complete picture in the provisional data in a more timely fashion. So it means that we can actually publish something sooner than we currently can. Now we have to wait until the data are complete enough to provide a picture. It’s sort of like putting together a puzzle. You know, when you get enough pieces in you can kind of see what the puzzle looks like, but if you’re still missing a lot you may not be able to see that picture. So we have to continually put these pieces in until we have something that we can recognize. And then when we do that then we can push that information out and publish it as provisional. And then when we get all the pieces in of course the data become final but the sooner we can get those pieces into the puzzle, the sooner we can show a picture of what’s happening with regarding mortality in the country.

HOST: Thanks to Robert Anderson for joining us on this edition of “Statcast.”