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Throughout our Department’s 150th anniversary year we will be highlighting aspects of our work and history. This month, we focus on an area that touches virtually every single Massachusetts resident: our Registry of Vital Records and Statistics. In addition to their most visible public function of issuing birth, death and marriage certificates, the Registry contributes to almost every aspect of the Department’s work – from data to infrastructure to customer service.

Registrar Karin Barrett

Registrar Karin Barrett

To learn more, we recently sat down with Karin A. Barrett, M.Ed., Registrar at the department affectionately known as “Vitals.” The following is a condensed version of our conversation.

What exactly are “Vital Records” and what would you say are their most important uses?

Karin Barrett: Vital records are typically known to be birth, deaths and marriage certificates used for a variety of purposes such as seeking a driver’s license or passport, applying for benefits, or enrolling a child in school. But the Registry also collects and disseminates important statistics on births, deaths, fetal deaths, divorce, and marriage. Our records and datasets really represent a comprehensive, statewide view of Massachusetts citizen demographics and health statistics. For instance, vital statistics help identify trends in mortality, and are an important tool to augment disease surveillance work by epidemiologists throughout the Department and beyond.

When was the Registry first established and what can you tell us about its early history?

KB: Massachusetts first mandated civil registration of vital events, births and deaths, back in 1639. Early records were registered in cities and towns and can still be found there.  Then in 1842, Lemuel Shattuck, namesake of the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, filed legislation to create the first-in-the-nation statewide vital statistics registry. As a result, the Registry can claim the oldest continuously published document in the Commonwealth — Public Document #1, the Annual Report of Vital Statistics. The Registry was part of the office of the Massachusetts Secretary of State until 1977 when it was transferred to DPH.

We have a full set of the Registry’s earliest reports, and we hope to place them online at some point. They are incredibly interesting.

Can you tell us about a particular vital records request you are working on?

KB: We recently started work on an interesting project with partner state agencies to provide information to parents of newborns about a new program [Baby Steps Savings Plan] that will provide seed money to encourage setting up college savings accounts. It’s exciting to be part of a project using birth records to plan for the future.

How has the public’s use of vital records evolved over time?

KB: While the Registry in some ways has changed surprisingly little from 1842, we are a dynamic agency changing significantly and rapidly. We are responsive to legislative changes and adapt to changing cultural norms that help to provide equity, such as modifications to systems and forms to address more accessible ways to establish parentage and correcting records to reflect accurate gender. I’ll give you a specific example.  While we have been facilitating voluntary acknowledgment of paternity for many years, in response to a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision (Partanen v. Gallagher), we are now revising our forms and electronic systems to allow establishment of parentage for non-married non-biological parents that use assisted reproductive technology.

Where would you like to see the Registry heading?   

KB: Our data is more in demand today than ever before. We are looking to a future that makes the Registry continually relevant, modern and efficient. Integration with electronic medical records (EMRs) looks to be the way of the future.  We will be exploring how we can leverage EMRs to reduce duplication of effort by hospital personnel and medical providers. This is an ongoing process and we still need to replace some paper systems, such as marriages and fetal death reporting, but we are getting there.

We are also working to improve the quality of death certificates, especially to encourage detail and avoid vague or unclassifiable causes of death. For instance, while a construction worker may have died through the mechanism of cardiac arrest, how much richer would our research and program planning be if we knew that person had a history of COPD and also was a diabetic?  Could we be capturing more information about opioid use, even when a patient died from other causes? There is so much more work to be done and I find it quite exciting.

What is the one thing Massachusetts residents should know about our Registry of Vital Records and Statistics?

KB: We are so very integral to many services and programs.  We serve the public with registration and issuance of legal documents; we partner with other agencies such as the Registry of Motor Vehicles to reduce fraud, waste and identity theft; and we are the foundation for state and national vital statistics that help to produce information about the health and well-being of the Commonwealth including data on opioid mortality, maternal and child health, life expectancy, and much more.  I encourage everyone to visit our website and learn more about all of the exciting things we are working on!

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Communications Director at the Department of Public Health

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