Added value of an open narrative in verbal autopsies: A mixed-methods evaluation from Malawi

Patricia Loh, Edward Fottrell, James Beard, Naor Bar-Zeev, Tambosi Phiri, Masford Banda, Charles Makwenda, Jon Bird, Carina King

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background The WHO standardised verbal autopsy (VA) instrument includes closed questions, ascertaining signs and symptoms of illness preceding death, and an optional open narrative. As VA analyses increasingly use automated algorithms, inclusion of narratives should be justified. We evaluated the role of open narratives on VA processes, data quality and respondent's emotional stress. Methods A mixed-methods analysis was conducted using VA data for child deaths (0-59 months), between April 2013 and November 2016 in Mchinji district, Malawi. Deaths were prospectively randomised to receive closed questions only or open narrative followed by closed questions. On concluding the VA, interviewers self-completed questions on respondents' emotional stress. Logistic regression was used to determine associations with visible emotional distress during VAs. A group discussion with interviewers was conducted at the project end, to understand field experiences and explore future recommendations; data were coded using deductive themes. Results 2509 VAs were included, with 49.8% (n=1341) randomised to open narratives. Narratives lasted a median of 7 minuntes (range: 1-113). Interviewers described improved rapport and felt narratives improved data quality, although there was no difference in the proportion of deaths with an indeterminate cause using an automated algorithm (5.3% vs 6.1%). The majority of respondents did not display visible emotional stress (81%). Those with a narrative had higher, but not statistically significant, odds of emotional distress (adjusted OR: 1.20; 95% CI: 0.98 to 1.47). Factors associated with emotional stress were: infant deaths versus neonates; deaths at a health centre or en-route to hospital versus home; and higher socioeconomic status. Non-parental respondents and increased time between death and interview were associated with lower odds of emotional distress. Conclusion Conducting an open narrative may help build rapport, something valued by the interviewers. However, additional time and emotional burdens should be further justified, with quality and utility of narratives promoted through standardised recommendations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number000961
JournalBMJ Paediatrics Open
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 5 2021


  • data collection
  • ethics
  • mortality
  • qualitative research

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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