Background: The process of data collection and the methods used to assign the cause of death vary significantly among different verbal autopsy protocols, but there are few data to describe the consequences of the choices made. The aim of this study was to objectively define the impact of the format of data presented to physician reviewers on the cause-specific mortality fractions defined by a verbal autopsy-based mortality-surveillance system.Methods: Verbal autopsies were done by primary health care workers for all deaths between October 2006 and September 2007 in a community in rural Andhra Pradesh, India (total population about 180,162). Each questionnaire had a structured section, composed of a series of check boxes, and a free-text section, in which a narrative description of the events leading to death was recorded. For each death, a physician coder was presented first with one section and then the other in random order with a 20- to 40-day interval between. A cause of death was recorded for each data format at the level of ICD 10 chapter headings or else the death was documented as unclassified. After another 20- to 40-day interval, both the structured and free-text sections of the questionnaire were presented together and an index cause of death was assigned.Results: In all, 1,407 verbal autopsies were available for analysis, representing 94% of all deaths recorded in the population that year. An index cause of death was assigned using the combined data for 1,190 with the other 217 remaining unclassified. The observed cause-specific mortality fractions were the same regardless of whether the structured, free-text or combined data sources were used. At the individual level, the assignments made using the structured format matched the index in 1,012 (72%) of cases with a kappa statistic of 0.66. For the free-text format, the corresponding figures were 989 (70%) and 0.64.Conclusions: The format of the verbal autopsy data used to assign a cause of death did not substantively influence the pattern of mortality estimated. Substantially abbreviated and simplified verbal autopsy questionnaires might provide robust information about high-level mortality patterns.