If the former GP Harold Shipman was still doing his rounds dispatching patients, it is unlikely he would be caught through examination of his death certificates, a report suggests today.

If the former GP Harold Shipman was still doing his rounds dispatching patients, it is unlikely he would be caught through examination of his death certificates, a report suggests today.

Britain's most prolific serial killer, who was jailed for life in January 2000, is estimated to have disposed of up to 297 of his patients, and disguised his activities by issuing false death certificates.

But researchers in Leicester who studied 1,000 death certificates issued between October 1999, three months before Shipman was convicted, and June 2000, found almost half were inaccurately completed. One in four contained incomplete information, one in ten was incorrectly completed and a further one in ten used the second part of the certificate incorrectly. There is no suggestion that any of the certificates was deliberately falsified but Dr Benjamin Swift, of Leicester Royal Infirmary, who is one of the authors the report, said the findings were "worrying."

He said: "It is always a possibility [that someone could be covering up wrongdoing.] The Home Office is currently reviewing its procedures for death certification following the Shipman case and is expected to report later this year."

Dr Swift said most of the death certificates in the study – which were taken from a large teaching hospital and four other units – were completed by junior doctors who had neither the experience nor the authority to complete them accurately and were too rushed in their work. Guidelines have been in place for 18 years that say the certificate should be completed by a senior doctor but they have been ignored.

Although many of Shipman's victims died after he injected them with an overdose of morphine, he used vague or general terms such as "old age" to describe the cause of death. Junior doctors are using similarly vague terms, which cannot be accurately coded, distorting national records of causes of death – something that doctors say are crucial in the fight against disease and illness.

Reporting their findings in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, the authors say: "It is highly likely that our findings are representative of the country as a whole. We continue to expect that our birth certificates have the correct names of our parents and that our marriage certificate has our partner's name placed in the correct line, why should we expect any less accuracy of our death certificates?"

Common errors on the death certificates included insufficient information to allow the death to be coded properly, lack of specificity, use of blanket terms, failure to indicate site of a tumour or stroke, and a lack of information as to how the death had come about.

The authors of the report have warned that, in the US, doctors have been sued by next of kin for inaccurately completing death certificates, where terms carrying a social stigma such as "suicide" or "drugs" have been wrongly used. The suggestion is the practice could spread to Britain.

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