A team of researchers has developed a revolutionary new app to capture accurate global cause of death data on tablets and mobile phones at a time when two in three deaths - 35 million each year - are unregistered worldwide, including in India.
Around 180 countries that are home to 80 percent of the world's population do not collect reliable cause of death statistics.
"Without the accurate cause of death information, we cannot monitor disease and injury trends, we can't keep track of emerging health problems and we don't have any markers to show us whether programs and policies are actually working," said professor Alan Lopez from University of Melbourne.
To develop the app, the research team redesigned a short "verbal autopsy" questionnaire and tested it in India, the Philippines, Mexico and Tanzania. The app was then field-tested in China, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea.
Family members of the deceased were given surveys in hand-held devices. A computer then analysed the data to make a diagnosis, bypassing the need to rely on doctors to do this work.
The method involves data collection by health workers, registrars and village officials who use the app to administer the surveys.
"The data is fed into a computer, which makes a diagnosis. It requires very minimal training. This way doctors are free to do what they do best, which is providing essential medical care to their communities," the authors noted.
Computers can reliably provide a diagnosis by linking symptoms with a specific cause of death in real-time.
The instant provision of information overcomes what can be a 10-year lag between the death and the doctor's report.
"So if you live in a country where no-one is dying from malaria, then why are you pouring money into malaria-prevention programmes? And conversely, if people are dying from lung cancer, why aren't you investing in tobacco control?" professor Lopez asked.
Verbal autopsy research has shown that computer models are just as accurate as physicians in making diagnoses based on verbal autopsy data, at a fraction of the cost.
The app is the result of a decade-long global collaboration led by the University of Melbourne and researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), University of Washington.
"In countries with scarce data on causes of death, policymakers need this information to better understand local disease burden and effectively allocate resources," added IHME director Dr Christopher Murray.
Up-to-date, reliable information on what people are dying from and at what age, is really important for policies to prevent premature death.
"Our app provides a way to do this, quickly, simply, cheaply and effectively, in real time, with the power of technology, professor Lopez concluded in a new paper published in the journal BMC Medicine.