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BACKGROUND. Although general practitioners are involved in the care of most dying patients, they do not routinely receive information about their deceased patients for whom they did not complete the death certificate, and often they rely upon informal communication channels. AIM. This study set out to assess how general practitioners obtained, recorded and used information about deceased patients and to determine their views on receiving a death register. METHOD. A questionnaire was sent to all 305 general practitioners in the Newcastle upon Tyne and Sunderland Family Health Services Authority areas. RESULTS. A total of 225 questionnaires were returned (response rate 74%). General practitioners usually first learnt about their patients' deaths from hospital discharge summaries (54%) and patients' relatives (46%) and less commonly from newspaper obituary columns (20%) and hospital telephone calls (9%). Two thirds of respondents recorded information about decreased patients, mainly listing personal details and the immediate cause of death. One third or fewer of those recording information listed contributory causes. The information was used mainly for following up bereaved relatives and notifying hospitals and other agencies. CONCLUSION. Current informal systems for handling information about patients' deaths are inadequate. General practitioners need and would welcome prompt, accurate and comprehensive information about all their deceased patients.