Decades of Death Records Go Online in San Diego County

The idea behind posting the data online is to make it readily available to the public and media, as well as researchers who may be able to look at the data and provide insights back to the Department of the Medical Examiner.

by Alex Riggins and Lauryn Schroeder The San Diego Union-Tribune / March 20, 2019
Shutterstock/Bojan Milinkov

(TNS) — The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office investigated twice as many sudden, unexpected deaths of men than women, according to new data released Tuesday that details more than two-decades’ worth of case records.

The office investigated more than 59,400 deaths between 1997 and October of last year. Data show more than 68 percent of that total involved men and boys, while just 31 percent involved women and girls. The gender was unknown or not released in about 225 cases.

The data was released for the first time in an online portal available to the public.

“We feel strongly that this information learned from the deaths that we’ve investigated can be used to help the living and even change lives for the better,” Dr. Glenn Wagner, the county’s chief medical examiner, said in a statement. “Our vision is to be a data-forward agency.”

County officials said “valuable comparisons and conclusions can be drawn from the types and circumstances of sudden unexpected deaths that occur in San Diego County, and in changes over time.”

According to a San Diego Union-Tribune analysis of medical examiner data, the office handles an average of 2,700 cases per year. In 2017, the office investigated some 3,130 cases, more than any other complete year since 1997. However, data show 2018 is on pace to meet or exceed the 2017 record.

Wagner said the idea behind posting the data online is to make it readily available to the public and media, as well as researchers “who may be able to look at the data and provide insights back to the Department of the Medical Examiner.”

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher issued a statement Tuesday in support of the move.

“This is a strong step in making our county government more transparent, more accountable and more accessible… ,” Fletcher said. “I support this new initiative. These gradual shifts, whether it is hosting an evening budget hearing or using technology to increase transparency and promote a more open government, are the type of change that help builds trust between the County, our residents and journalists.”

The Medical Examiner does not investigate all deaths in San Diego county, but generally has jurisdiction for all homicides, suicides, accidental deaths and in-custody deaths. The office also investigates “a very small percentage” of sudden or unexpected deaths in which the person who died had not seen a healthcare provider in the last 20 days.

Records show most cases occurred in the month of January. Deaths were least common in October and November.

The average age among all deaths is 54. Women were older on average, at about 59 years old, while men were younger — about 51 years old.

County records show the largest portion, about 42 percent of all deaths investigated by the Medical Examiner, were accidental. Homicides account for about 4 percent. More than 37 percent died of natural causes.

The medical examiner investigated more than 8,000 suicides, 200 of which occurred on the Coronado Bridge. The manner of death in another 1,000 cases were marked as “other” or “undetermined.”

Nearly 10 percent of all deaths involved opioids.

“The types of cases that fall under the Medical Examiner’s scope are of interest from both a public health and public safety aspect,” Wagner said. “The ability to compare San Diego statistics with other regional, state and national statistics is as important as a jurisdiction’s crime statistics.”

For the sake of privacy, the data posted online does not include names, dates of birth, case numbers or specific addresses.

But almost every other detail of a death is searchable and comparable in about 30 data points, including a person’s age, date of death, race, ethnic group, manner of death, cause of death, place of death and so on.

The data portal is available at https://data.sandiegocounty.gov/Safety/Medical-Examiner-Cases/jkvb-n4p7.

Executive summaries detailing some death statistics for each year dating back to 2000 can be found at https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/sdc/me/press/stats.html.

©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.