Attending Physician Duties
Not every death falls under the jurisdiction of the Medical Examiner’s Office. If a decedent has died from apparent natural causes and has an attending (or treating) physician, the physician is expected to certify the decedent’s death.
Who is the Attending Physician
Unfortunately, there is some confusion as to what the phrase “attending physician” means. Attending physician does not mean the doctor was in attendance (present) at the time decedent passed away. It simply means that the doctor has regularly treated the decedent within the past three months of life and / or prescribed medications.
That being said, as you will see by the Florida Statute listed below, the attending physician is expected to sign the death certificate on any natural death in which there is significant medical history to explain the cause of death.
It should also be noted that in the event where an attending physician is unavailable or on vacation, the doctor who has agreed to go “on call” for said attending physician carries with him the responsibility for certifying the deaths of that doctor’s patients.
How to Sign Death Certificates
Causes of death listed generically such as “Natural Causes” or “Cardiac Arrest” are not acceptable.
If you are the attending physician of a patient who dies, and are required to sign the death certificate per Florida Statute382.008, it is important that more specific causes be attributed to your patient’s death. If you do not know what caused your patient’s death and they have significant medical history such as congestive heart failure, hypertension, and/or diabetes, it is perfectly acceptable to list each of those conditions as part of the cause of death.
A physician is not expected to know the exact mechanism of death. They are merely required to make a general educated hypothesis as to the most probable cause for which someone died. Listing their previous and current serious medical conditions can do this.
For more information on how to properly sign a death certificate, or your responsibilities, please see the Florida Department of Heath Vital Statistics information.
The following are the Florida Statutes that describe the exact responsibilities of an attending physician or covering physician: