Validating hierarchical verbal autopsy expert algorithms in a large data set with known causes of death

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11 Scopus citations


Background Physician assessment historically has been the most common method of analyzing verbal autopsy (VA) data. Recently, the World Health Organization endorsed two automated methods, Tariff 2.0 and InterVA-4, which promise greater objectivity and lower cost. A disadvantage of the Tariff method is that it requires a training data set from a prior validation study, while InterVA relies on clinically specified conditional probabilities. We undertook to validate the hierarchical expert algorithm analysis of VA data, an automated, intuitive, deterministic method that does not require a training data set. Methods Using Population Health Metrics Research Consortium study hospital source data, we compared the primary causes of 1629 neonatal and 1456 1-59 month-old child deaths from VA expert algorithms arranged in a hierarchy to their reference standard causes. The expert algorithms were held constant, while five prior and one new "compromise" neonatal hierarchy, and three former child hierarchies were tested. For each comparison, the reference standard data were resampled 1000 times within the range of cause-specific mortality fractions (CSMF) for one of three approximated community scenarios in the 2013 WHO global causes of death, plus one random mortality cause proportions scenario. We utilized CSMF accuracy to assess overall population-level validity, and the absolute difference between VA and reference standard CSMFs to examine particular causes. Chance-corrected concordance (CCC) and Cohen's kappa were used to evaluate individual-level cause assignment. Results Overall CSMF accuracy for the best-performing expert algorithm hierarchy was 0.80 (range 0.57-0.96) for neonatal deaths and 0.76 (0.50-0.97) for child deaths. Performance for particular causes of death varied, with fairly flat estimated CSMF over a range of reference values for several causes. Performance at the individual diagnosis level was also less favorable than that for overall CSMF (neonatal: best CCC = 0.23, range 0.16-0.33; best kappa = 0.29, 0.23-0.35; child: best CCC = 0.40, 0.19-0.45; best kappa = 0.29, 0.07-0.35). Conclusions Expert algorithms in a hierarchy offer an accessible, automated method for assigning VA causes of death. Overall population- level accuracy is similar to that of more complex machine learning methods, but without need for a training data set from a prior validation study.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number010601
JournalJournal of global health
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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