About 20% of patients whose medical records showed them as being alive with a serious illness were in fact deceased, according to California data, leading to hundreds of unnecessary interactions such as appointment reminders, prescription refills and other kinds of wasteful outreach that strain resources and health care workers’ time.

The data gap is due to California law that makes these full death data available only “for purposes of law enforcement or preventing fraud,” a UCLA-lead research team found. Even a real-time death database maintained by the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Services remains unavailable to health organizations, they write.

The findings were published Dec. 4 in a JAMA Internal Medicine research letter.

The problem exists for nearly all California hospitals and in some other states, but the UCLA team is the first to document it, said Dr. Neil Wenger, a professor in the division of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the paper’s lead author.

“The amazing thing is that this is an easily solvable problem because the state has a database that can identify most of the patients who die, but current law prevents them from giving it to health care institutions; only financial institutions,” Wenger said. “Perhaps highlighting this problem will raise awareness and help to fix this issue.”

► Read the full news release on the UCLA Health website.