Open Access Research article

Easier said than done!: methodological challenges with conducting maternal death review research in Malawi

Viva Combs Thorsen1*, Johanne Sundby1, Tarek Meguid2 and Address Malata3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Community Medicine, University of Oslo, PO Box 1130, Blindern, N-0318 Oslo, Norway

2 Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, University of Namibia, School of Medicine, Private Bag 13301, Windhoek, Namibia

3 Department of Maternal and Child Health, Kamuzu College of Nursing, University of Malawi, Private Bag 1, Lilongwe, Malawi

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2014, 14:29  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-14-29

Published: 21 February 2014



Maternal death auditing is widely used to ascertain in-depth information on the clinical, social, cultural, and other contributing factors that result in a maternal death. As the 2015 deadline for Millennium Development Goal 5 of reducing maternal mortality by three quarters between 1990 and 2015 draws near, this information becomes even more critical for informing intensified maternal mortality reduction strategies. Studies using maternal death audit methodologies are widely available, but few discuss the challenges in their implementation. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the methodological issues that arose while conducting maternal death review research in Lilongwe, Malawi.


Critical reflections were based on a recently conducted maternal mortality study in Lilongwe, Malawi in which a facility-based maternal death review approach was used. The five-step maternal mortality surveillance cycle provided the framework for discussion. The steps included: 1) identification of cases, 2) data collection, 3) data analysis, 4) recommendations, and 5) evaluation.


Challenges experienced were related to the first three steps of the surveillance cycle. They included: 1) identification of cases: conflicting maternal death numbers, and missing medical charts, 2) data collection: poor record keeping, poor quality of documentation, difficulties in identifying and locating appropriate healthcare workers for interviews, the potential introduction of bias through the use of an interpreter, and difficulties with locating family and community members and recall bias; and 3) data analysis: determining the causes of death and clinical diagnoses.


Conducting facility-based maternal death reviews for the purpose of research has several challenges. This paper illustrated that performing such an activity, particularly the data collection phase, was not as easy as conveyed in international guidelines and in published studies. However, these challenges are not insurmountable. If they are anticipated and proper steps are taken in advance, they can be avoided or their effects minimized.

Maternal death review; Maternal death audit; Maternal mortality; Surveillance cycle; Malawi