Nowadays, palliative care is considered as a care continuum that may start early in the course of the disease. In order to address the evolving needs of patients for palliative care in time, GPs should be aware in good time of the diagnosis and of the imminence of death. The aim of the study was to gain insight into how long before a non-sudden death the diagnosis of the disease ultimately leading to death is made and on what kind of information the diagnosis is based. In addition, we aimed to explore when, and based on what kind of information, GPs become aware that death of a patient will be in the foreseeable future.
A written questionnaire focusing on the GPs’ experiences with their last patient who died non-suddenly was sent to a random representative sample of 850 GPs in the Netherlands.
The data were analysed of the 297 GPs who responded. 76% of the reported cases were cancer patients and 24% were patients with another non-sudden cause of death. The diagnosis was made only in the last week of life for 15% of the non-cancer patients and 1% of the patients with cancer. GPs were most likely to have been informed of the diagnosis by the medical specialist, although particularly in the case of non-cancer patients GPs also relied on their own assessment of the diagnosis or on other information sources.
The GP remained unaware that the patient would die in the foreseeable future until the last week of life in 26% of the non-cancer group, while this was the case for only 6% of the cancer patients. GP’s awareness was most likely to be based on the GP’s own observations of problems and/or symptoms.
The GP often only becomes aware of a fatal diagnosis and of death in the foreseeable future at a late stage in the disease trajectory, particularly in the case of non-cancer patients. It can be assumed that if the diagnosis and the nearing death are only recognised at a late stage, palliative care is either started at a very late stage or not at all.
General practice; Primary care; Palliative care; End-of-life care; Diagnosis; Cancer; Chronic diseases
Communicating effectively with palliative care patients has been acknowledged to be somewhat difficult, but little is known about the effect that training general practitioners (GPs) in specific elements of communication in palliative care might have. We hypothesized that GPs exposed to a new training programme in GP-patient communication in palliative care focusing on availability of the GP for the patient, current issues the GP should discuss with the patient and anticipation by the GP of various scenarios (ACA), would discuss more issues and become more skilled in their communication with palliative care patients.
In this controlled trial among GPs who attended a two-year Palliative Care Peer Group Training Course in the Netherlands only intervention GPs received the ACA training programme. To evaluate the effect of the programme a content analysis (Roter Interaction Analysis System) was performed of one videotaped 15-minute consultation of each GP with a simulated palliative care patient conducted at baseline, and one at 12 months follow-up. Both how the GP communicated with the patient (‘availability’) and the number of current and anticipated issues the GP discussed with the patient were measured quantitatively. We used linear mixed models and logistic regression models to evaluate between-group differences over time.
Sixty-two GPs were assigned to the intervention and 64 to the control group. We found no effect of the ACA training programme on how the GPs communicated with the patient or on the number of issues discussed by GPs with the patient. The total number of issues discussed by the GPs was eight out of 13 before and after the training in both groups.
The ACA training programme did not influence how the GPs communicated with the simulated palliative care patient or the number of issues discussed by the GPs in this trial. Further research should evaluate whether this training programme is effective for GPs who do not have a special interest in palliative care and whether studies using outcomes at patient level can provide more insight into the effectiveness of the ACA training programme.
Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN56722368
Communication; Controlled Clinical Trial; Education Medical Continuing; Family Practice; Palliative Care
Although end-of-life care has become an issue of great clinical and public health concern in Europe and beyond, we lack population-based nationwide data that monitor and compare the circumstances of dying and care received in the final months of life in different countries. The European Sentinel GP Networks Monitoring End of Life Care (EURO SENTIMELC) study was designed to describe and compare the last months of life of patients dying in different European countries. We aim to describe how representative GP networks in the EURO SENTIMELC study operate to monitor end of life care in a country, to describe used methodology, research procedures, representativity and characteristics of the population reached using this methodology.
Nationwide representative Networks of General Practitioners (GPs) – ie epidemiological surveillance systems representative of all GPs in a country or large region of a country – in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain continuously registered every deceased patient (>18 year) in their practice, using weekly standardized registration forms, during two consecutive years (2009–2010).
All GPs were asked to identify patients who had died “non-suddenly”. The last three months of these patients’ lives was surveyed retrospectively. Several quality control measures were used to ensure data of high scientific quality.
A total of 6858 deaths were registered of which two thirds died non-suddenly (from 62% in the Netherlands to 69% in Spain), representative for the GP populations in the participating countries. Of all non-sudden deaths, between 32% and 44% of deaths were aged 85 or older; between 46% and 54% were female, and between 23% and 49% died at home. Cancer was cause of death in 37% to 53% of non-sudden death cases in the four participating countries.
Via the EURO SENTI-MELC methodology, we can build a descriptive epidemiological database on end-of-life care provision in several EU countries, measuring across setting and diseases. The data can serve as baseline measurement to compare and monitor end-of-life care over time. The use of representative GP networks for end-of-life care monitoring has huge potential in Europe where several of these networks are operational.
Palliative care; Monitoring; End of life
Patients with dementia frequently do not receive adequate palliative care which may relate to poor understanding of the natural course of dementia. We hypothesized that understanding that dementia is a progressive and terminal disease is fundamental to a focus on comfort in dementia, and examined how family and professional caregivers’ understanding of the nature of the disease was associated with patients’ comfort during the dying process.
We enrolled 372 nursing home patients from 28 facilities in The Netherlands in a prospective observational study (2007 to 2010). We studied both the families and the physicians (73) of 161 patients. Understanding referred to families’ comprehension of complications, prognosis, having been counseled on these, and perception of dementia as “a disease you can die from” (5-point agreement scale) at baseline. Physicians reported on this perception, prognosis and having counseled on this. Staff-assessed comfort with the End-of-Life in Dementia - Comfort Assessment in Dying (EOLD-CAD) scale. Associations between understanding and comfort were assessed with generalized estimating equations, structural equation modeling, and mediator analyses.
A family’s perception of dementia as “a disease you can die from” predicted higher patient comfort during the dying process (adjusted coefficient −0.8, 95% confidence interval (CI): −1.5; -0.06 point increment disagreement). Family and physician combined perceptions (−0.9, CI: −1.5; -0.2; 9-point scale) were also predictive, including in less advanced dementia. Forty-three percent of the families perceived dementia as a disease you can die from (agreed completely, partly); 94% of physicians did. The association between combined perception and higher comfort was mediated by the families’ reporting of a good relationship with the patient and physicians’ perception that good care was provided in the last week.
Awareness of the terminal nature of dementia may improve patient comfort at the end of life. Educating families on the nature of dementia may be an important part of advance care planning.
Palliative care; End of life; Dementia
Little is known about how GPs determine whether and when patients need palliative care. Little research has been done regarding the assumption underpinning Lynn and Adamson’s model that palliative care may start early in the course of the disease. This study was conducted to explore how GPs identify a need for palliative care in patients.
A qualitative interview study was performed among 20 GPs in the Netherlands.
GPs reported that a combination of several signals, often subtle and not explicit, made them identify a need for palliative care: signals from patients (increasing care dependency and not recuperating after intercurrent diseases) and signals from relatives or reports from medical specialists. GPs reported differences in how they identified a need for palliative care in cancer patients versus those with other diseases. In cancer patients, the need for palliative care was often relatively clear because of a relatively strict demarcation between the curative and palliative phase. However, in patients with e.g. COPD or in the very old, GPs' awareness of palliative care needs often arises gradually, relatively late in the disease trajectory.
GPs consider the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness as a key point in the disease trajectory. However, this does not automatically mean that a patient needs palliative care at that point.
GPs recognize a need for palliative care on the basis of various signals. They do not support the idea underlying Lynn and Adamson’s model that palliative care always starts early in the course of the disease.
General practice; Primary care; Palliative care; Qualitative research; End-of-life care
Making treatment decisions in anticipation of possible future incapacity is an important part of patient participation in end-of-life decision-making. This study estimates and compares the prevalence of GP-patient end-of-life treatment discussions and patients’ appointment of surrogate decision-makers in Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands and examines associated factors.
A cross-sectional, retrospective survey was conducted with representative GP networks in four countries. GPs recorded the health and care characteristics in the last three months of life of 4,396 patients who died non-suddenly. Prevalences were estimated and logistic regressions were used to examine between country differences and country-specific associated patient and care factors.
GP-patient discussion of treatment preferences occurred for 10%, 7%, 25% and 47% of Italian, Spanish, Belgian and of Dutch patients respectively. Furthermore, 6%, 5%, 16% and 29% of Italian, Spanish, Belgian and Dutch patients had a surrogate decision-maker. Despite some country-specific differences, previous GP-patient discussion of primary diagnosis, more frequent GP contact, GP provision of palliative care, the importance of palliative care as a treatment aim and place of death were positively associated with preference discussions or surrogate appointments. A diagnosis of dementia was negatively associated with preference discussions and surrogate appointments.
The study revealed a higher prevalence of treatment preference discussions and surrogate appointments in the two northern compared to the two southern European countries. Factors associated with preference discussions and surrogate appointments suggest that delaying diagnosis discussions impedes anticipatory planning, whereas early preference discussions, particularly for dementia patients, and the provision of palliative care encourage participation.
In recent years, there have been several studies, using a wide variety of methods, aimed at developing quality indicators for palliative care. In this Quality Indicators for Palliative Care study (Q-PAC study) we have applied a scientifically rigorous method to develop a comprehensive and valid quality indicator set which can contribute to a standardized method for use in other countries.
Methods and design
Firstly, an extensive literature review identified existing international quality indicators and relevant themes for measuring quality in palliative care. Secondly, the most relevant of these were selected by an expert panel. Thirdly, those prioritized by the experts were scored by a second multidisciplinary expert panel for usability and relevance, in keeping with the RAND/UCLA-method, combining evidence with consensus among stakeholders. This panel included carers and policymakers as well as patients and next-of-kin. Fourthly, the draft set was tested and evaluated in practice for usability and feasibility; the indicators were then translated into questionnaires presented to patients, next-of-kin and care providers. To encourage the acceptance and use of the indicators, stakeholders, including national palliative care organizations, were involved throughout the whole project.
Our indicator development trajectory resulted in a set of quality indicators applicable to all patients in all palliative care settings. The set includes patient and relative perspectives and includes outcome, process and structure indicators. Our method can contribute internationally to a more standardized and rigorous approach to developing quality indicators for palliative care.
Quality indicators; Quality measurement; Palliative care; Quality of care; End of life care; Hospice care; Outcome measures; Developing method
Little is known about treatment aims during the last 3 months of life.
To investigate important treatment aims in the last 3 months of patients’ lives in cases of non-sudden death.
Design and setting
Mortality follow-back study in the Netherlands.
Data were collected retrospectively in 2009 within the representative Sentinel Network of GPs in the Netherlands. GPs completed a standardised registration form.
Data for 279 patients were studied. Of these, 55% died of cancer and 45% of another disease. Treatment was aimed at palliation for 73% of the patients in months 2 and 3 before death, and for 95% of the patients in the last week of life. Seven per cent received treatment aimed at cure in the last week of life. In a minority of patients, cure/life prolongation and palliation were simultaneously important treatment aims. In the last week of life and in the 2–4 weeks before death, cure was more frequently reported as an important treatment aim in patients with a non-cancer disease than in patients with cancer. In the 2–4 weeks before death, palliation was an important treatment aim for a larger proportion of patients with cancer than patients with other diseases.
Registration by GPs show that, in the last weeks and days of life, cure was more frequently reported as an important treatment aim in patients with a non-cancer disease than in patients with cancer. For a small number of patients, palliation and cure/life prolongation were simultaneously important treatment aims.
epidemiological studies; general practitioners; palliative care; terminal care; treatment
Many patients are transferred from home to hospital during the final phase of life and the majority die in hospital. The aim of the study is to explore hospital referrals of palliative care patients for whom an out-of-hours general practitioner was called.
A retrospective descriptive chart study was conducted covering a one-year period (1/Nov/2005 to 1/Nov/2006) in all eight out-of-hours GP co-operatives in the Amsterdam region (Netherlands). All symptoms, sociodemographic and medical characteristics were recorded in 529 charts for palliative care patients. Multivariate logistic regression analysis was performed to identify the variables associated with hospital referrals at the end of life.
In all, 13% of all palliative care patients for whom an out-of-hours general practitioner was called were referred to hospital. Palliative care patients with cancer (OR 5,1), cardiovascular problems (OR 8,3), digestive problems (OR 2,5) and endocrine, metabolic and nutritional (EMN) problems (OR 2,5) had a significantly higher chance of being referred. Patients receiving professional nursing care (OR 0,2) and patients for whom their own general practitioner had transferred information to the out-of-hours cooperative (OR 0,4) had a significantly lower chance of hospital referral. The most frequent reasons for hospital referral, as noted by the out-of-hours general practitioner, were digestive (30%), EMN (19%) and respiratory (17%) problems.
Whilst acknowledging that an out-of-hours hospital referral can be the most desirable option in some situations, this study provides suggestions for avoiding undesirable hospital referrals by out-of-hours general practitioners at the end of life. These include anticipating digestive, EMN, respiratory and cardiovascular symptoms in palliative care patients.
General Practice; Primary Care; Palliative Care; Out of Hours; Hospital Referral; Cancer; Symptoms
We describe the development of a new training programme on GP-patient communication in palliative care, and the applicability to GPs and GP Trainees. This ‘ACA training programme’ focuses on A vailability of the GP for the patient, C urrent issues that should be raised by the GP, and A nticipating various scenarios. Evaluation results indicate the ACA training programme to be applicable to GPs and GP Trainees. The ACA checklist was appreciated by GPs as useful both in practice and as a learning tool, whereas GP Trainees mainly appreciated the list for use in practice.
Palliative care; Communication; Education; Family practice; Feasibility studies; Physician-patient relations
Case management is a heterogeneous concept of care that consists of assessment, planning, implementing, coordinating, monitoring, and evaluating the options and services required to meet the client's health and service needs. This paper describes the result of an expert panel procedure to gain insight into the aims and characteristics of case management in palliative care in the Netherlands.
A modified version of the RAND®/University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) appropriateness method was used to formulate and rate a list of aims and characteristics of case management in palliative care. A total of 76 health care professionals, researchers and policy makers were invited to join the expert panel, of which 61% participated in at least one round.
Nine out of ten aims of case management were met with agreement. The most important areas of disagreement with regard to characteristics of case management were hands-on nursing care by the case manager, target group of case management, performance of other tasks besides case management and accessibility of the case manager.
Although aims are agreed upon, case management in palliative care shows a high level of variability in implementation choices. Case management should aim at maintaining continuity of care to ensure that patients and those close to them experience care as personalised, coherent and consistent.
Case management; End of life care; Palliative care
A growing body of scientific research is suggesting that end-of-life care and decision making may differ between age groups and that elderly patients may be the most vulnerable to exclusion of due care at the end of life. This study investigates age-related disparities in the rate of end-of-life decisions with a possible or certain life shortening effect (ELDs) and in the preceding decision making process in Flanders, Belgium in 2007, where euthanasia was legalised in 2002. Comparing with data from an identical survey in 1998 we also study the plausibility of the ‘slippery slope’ hypothesis which predicts a rise in the rate of administration of life ending drugs without patient request, especially among elderly patients, in countries where euthanasia is legal.
We performed a post-mortem survey among physicians certifying a large representative sample (n = 6927) of death certificates in 2007, identical to a 1998 survey. Response rate was 58.4%.
While the rates of non-treatment decisions (NTD) and administration of life ending drugs without explicit request (LAWER) did not differ between age groups, the use of intensified alleviation of pain and symptoms (APS) and euthanasia/assisted suicide (EAS), as well as the proportion of euthanasia requests granted, was bivariately and negatively associated with patient age. Multivariate analysis showed no significant effects of age on ELD rates. Older patients were less often included in decision making for APS and more often deemed lacking in capacity than were younger patients. Comparison with 1998 showed a decrease in the rate of LAWER in all age groups except in the 80+ age group where the rate was stagnant.
Age is not a determining factor in the rate of end-of-life decisions, but is in decision making as patient inclusion rates decrease with old age. Our results suggest there is a need to focus advance care planning initiatives on elderly patients. The slippery slope hypothesis cannot be confirmed either in general or among older people, as since the euthanasia law fewer LAWER cases were found.
Ageism; Age inequalities; End of life; End-of-life decisions; Slippery slope; Euthanasia; Palliative care; Belgium
Recognising patients who will die in the near future is important for adequate planning and provision of end-of-life care. GPs can play a key role in this.
To explore the following questions: How long before death do GPs recognise patients likely to die in the near future? Which patient, illness, and care-related characteristics are related to such recognition? How does recognising death in the near future, before the last week of life, relate to care in during this period?
Design and setting
One-year follow-back study via a surveillance GP network in the Netherlands.
Registration of demographic and care-related characteristics.
Of 252 non-sudden deaths, 70% occurred in the home or care home and 30% in hospital. GP recognition of death in the near future was absent in 30%, and occurred prior to the last month in 15%, within the last month in 19%, and in the last week in 34%. Logistic regression analyses showed cancer and low functional status were positively associated with death in the near future; cancer and discussing palliative care options were positively associated with recognising death in the near future before the last week of life. Recognising death in the near future before patients’ last week of life was associated with fewer hospital deaths, more GP–patient contacts in the last week, more deaths in a preferred place, and more-frequent GP–patient discussions about specific topics in the last 7 days of life.
Recognising death in the near future precedes several aspects of end-of-life care. The proportion in whom death in the near future is never recognised is large, suggesting GPs could be assisted in this process through training and implementation of care protocols that promote timely recognition of the dying phase.
death; general practitioner; home care; primary care; recognition of dying phase; terminal care
Effective communication is considered to be essential for the delivery of high-quality care. Communication in palliative care may be particularly difficult, and there is still no accepted set of communication skills for GPs in providing palliative care.
To obtain detailed information on facilitators and barriers for GP–patient communication in palliative care, with the aim to develop training programmes that enable GPs to improve their palliative care communication skills.
Design of study
Qualitative study with focus groups, interviews, and questionnaires.
GPs with patients receiving palliative care at home, and end-of-life consultants in the Netherlands.
GP (n = 20) focus groups discussing facilitators and barriers, palliative care patient (n = 6) interviews regarding facilitators, and end-of-life consultant (n = 22) questionnaires concerning barriers.
Facilitators reported by both GPs and patients were accessibility, taking time, commitment, and listening carefully. GPs emphasise respect, while patients want GPs to behave in a friendly way, and to take the initiative to discuss end-of-life issues. Barriers reported by both GPs and end-of-life consultants were: difficulty in dealing with former doctors' delay and strong demands from patients' relatives. GPs report difficulty in dealing with strong emotions and troublesome doctor–patient relationships, while consultants report insufficient clarification of patients' problems, promises that could not be kept, helplessness, too close involvement, and insufficient anticipation of various scenarios.
The study findings suggest that the quality of GP–patient communication in palliative care in the Netherlands can be improved. It is recommended that specific communication training programmes for GPs should be developed and evaluated.
communication; palliative care; physicians, family; physician–patient relationship; qualitative research
While increasing attention is being paid to enabling terminal patients to remain at home until death, limited information is available on the circumstances in which people at home actually die. Therefore this study aims to describe patient characteristics, functional and cognitive status and physical and psychological symptom burden in the last three months of life among Belgian patients dying at home, according to their GPs.
In 2005, a nationwide and retrospective interview study with GPs took place on people dying at home in Belgium as reported by Sentinel Network of GPs in Belgium. GPs registered all deaths (patients aged 1 year or more) weekly and were interviewed about all patients dying non-suddenly at home, using face-to-face structured interviews.
Interviews were obtained on 205 patients (90% response rate). Between the second and third month before death, 55% were fully invalid or limited in self-care. In the last week of life, almost all were fully invalid. Fifty four percent were unconscious at some point during the last week; 46% were fully conscious. Most frequently reported symptoms were lack of energy, lack of appetite and feeling drowsy. Conditions most difficult for GPs to manage were shortness of breath, lack of energy and pain.
Many people dying at home under the care of their GPs in Belgium function relatively well until the last week of life and cognitive status seems to be preserved until the end in many cases. However, symptoms which GPs find difficult to control still manifest in many patients in the final week of life.
To describe role and involvement of Life End Information Forum (LEIF) physicians in end-of-life care decisions and euthanasia in Flanders.
All 132 LEIF physicians in Belgium received a questionnaire inquiring about their activities in the past year, and their end-of-life care training and experience.
Response rate was 75 percent. Most respondents followed substantive training in end-of-life care. In 1 year, LEIF physicians were contacted 612 times for consultations in end-of-life decisions, of which 355 concerned euthanasia requests eventually resulting in 221 euthanasia cases. LEIF physicians also gave information about various end-of-life issues (including palliative care) to patients and colleagues.
LEIF physicians provide a forum for information and advice for physicians and patients. A similar health service providing support to physicians for all end-of-life decisions could also be beneficial for countries without a euthanasia law.
Consultation; euthanasia; end-of-life decisions
Debates about euthanasia often polarise opinion, but Jan Bernheim and colleagues describe how in Belgium the two camps grew up side by side to mutual benefit
Since most patients prefer out-of-hospital death, place of death can be considered an indicator of end-of-life care quality. The study of trends in place of death is necessary to examine causes of shifts, to evaluate efforts to alter place of death and develop future policies. This study aims to examine past trends and future projections of place of death.
Analysis of death certificates (decedents aged ≥ 1 year) in Belgium (Flanders and Brussels Capital region) 1998-2007. Trends in place of death were adjusted for cause of death, sociodemographic characteristics, environmental factors, numbers of hospital beds, and residential and skilled nursing beds in care homes. Future trends were based on age- and sex-specific mortality prognoses.
Hospital deaths decreased from 55.1% to 51.7% and care home deaths rose from 18.3% to 22.6%. The percentage of home deaths remained stable. The odds of dying in a care home versus hospital increased steadily and was 1.65 (95%CI:1.53-1.78) in 2007 compared to 1998. This increase could be attributed to the replacement of residential beds by skilled nursing beds. Continuation of these trends would result in the more than doubling of deaths in care homes and a decrease in deaths at home and in hospital by 2040.
Additional end-of-life care resources in care homes largely explain the decrease in hospital deaths. Care homes will become the main locus of end-of-life care in the future. Governments should provide sufficient skilled nursing resources in care homes to fulfil the end-of-life care preferences and needs of patients.
Euthanasia became legal in Belgium in 2002. Physicians must adhere to legal due care requirements when performing euthanasia; for example, consulting a second physician and reporting each euthanasia case to the Federal Review Committee.
To study the adherence and non-adherence of GPs to legal due care requirements for euthanasia among patients dying at home in Belgium and to explore possible reasons for non-adherence.
Design of study
Large scale, retrospective study.
General practice in Belgium.
A retrospective mortality study was performed in 2005–2006 using the nationwide Belgian Sentinel Network of General Practitioners. Each week GPs reported medical end-of-life decisions taken in all non-sudden deaths of patients in their practice. GP interviews were conducted for each euthanasia case occurring at home.
Interviews were conducted for nine of the 11 identified euthanasia cases. Requirements concerning the patient's medical condition were met in all cases. Procedural requirements such as consultation of a second physician were sometimes ignored. Euthanasia cases were least often reported (n = 4) when the physician did not regard the decision as euthanasia, when only opioids were used to perform euthanasia, or when no second physician was consulted. Factors that may contribute to explaining non-adherence to the euthanasia law included: being unaware of which practices are considered to be euthanasia; insufficient knowledge of the euthanasia law; and the fact that certain procedures are deemed burdensome.
Substantive legal due care requirements for euthanasia concerning the patient's request for euthanasia and medical situation were almost always met by GPs in euthanasia cases. Procedural consultation and reporting requirements were not always met.
euthanasia; health policy; terminal care
A significant minority of dying people experience refractory symptoms or extreme distress unresponsive to conventional therapies. In such circumstances, sedation may be used to decrease or remove consciousness until death occurs. This practice is described in a variety of ways, including: 'palliative sedation', 'terminal sedation', 'continuous deep sedation until death', 'proportionate sedation' or 'palliative sedation to unconsciousness'. Surveys show large unexplained variation in incidence of sedation at the end of life across countries and care settings and there are ethical concerns about the use, intentions, risks and significance of the practice in palliative care. There are also questions about how to explain international variation in the use of the practice. This protocol relates to the UNBIASED study (UK Netherlands Belgium International Sedation Study), which comprises three linked studies with separate funding sources in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands. The aims of the study are to explore decision-making surrounding the application of continuous sedation until death in contemporary clinical practice, and to understand the experiences of clinical staff and decedents' informal care-givers of the use of continuous sedation until death and their perceptions of its contribution to the dying process. The UNBIASED study is part of the European Association for Palliative Care Research Network.
To realize the study aims, a two-phase study has been designed. The study settings include: the domestic home, hospital and expert palliative care sites. Phase 1 consists of: a) focus groups with health care staff and bereaved informal care-givers; and b) a preliminary case notes review to study the range of sedation therapy provided at the end of life to cancer patients who died within a 12 week period. Phase 2 employs qualitative methods to develop 30 patient-centred case studies in each country. These involve interviews with staff and informal care-givers closely involved in the care of cancer patients who received continuous sedation until death.
To our knowledge, this is one of the few studies which seek to take a qualitative perspective on clinical decision making surrounding the use of continuous sedation until death and the only one which includes the perspectives of nurses, physicians, as well as bereaved informal care-givers. It has several potential strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats associated with the specific design of the study, as well as with the sensitive nature of the topic and the different frameworks for ethical review in the participating countries.
To examine differences in end‐of‐life decision‐making in patients dying at home, in a hospital or in a care home.
A death certificate study: certifying physicians from representative samples of death certificates, taken between June 2001 and February 2002, were sent questionnaires on the end‐of‐life decision‐making preceding the patient's death.
Four European countries: Belgium (Flanders), Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland (German‐speaking part).
Main outcome measures
The incidence of and communication in different end‐of‐life decisions: physician‐assisted death, alleviation of pain/symptoms with a possible life‐shortening effect, and non‐treatment decisions.
Response rates ranged from 59% in Belgium to 69% in Switzerland. The total number of deaths studied was 12 492. Among all non‐sudden deaths the incidence of several end‐of‐life decisions varied by place of death. Physician‐assisted death occurred relatively more often at home (0.3–5.1%); non‐treatment decisions generally occurred more often in hospitals (22.4–41.3%), although they were also frequently taken in care homes in Belgium (26.0%) and Switzerland (43.1%). Continuous deep sedation, in particular without the administration of food and fluids, was more likely to occur in hospitals. At home, end‐of‐life decisions were usually more often discussed with patients. The incidence of discussion with other caregivers was generally relatively low at home compared with in hospitals or care homes.
The results suggest the possibility that end‐of‐life decision‐making is related to the care setting where people die. The study results seem to call for the development of good end‐of‐life care options and end‐of‐life communication guidelines in all settings.
decision making; epidemiology; euthanasia; terminal care; withholding treatment
Objectives To estimate the rate of reporting of euthanasia cases to the Federal Control and Evaluation Committee and to compare the characteristics of reported and unreported cases of euthanasia.
Design Cross sectional analysis.
Setting Flanders, Belgium.
Participants A stratified at random sample was drawn of people who died between 1 June 2007 and 30 November 2007. The certifying physician of each death was sent a questionnaire on end of life decision making in the death concerned.
Main outcome measures The rate of euthanasia cases reported to the Federal Control and Evaluation Committee; physicians’ reasons for not reporting cases of euthanasia; the relation between reporting and non-reporting and the characteristics of the physician and patient; the time by which life was shortened according to the physician; the labelling of the end of life decision by the physician involved; and differences in characteristics of due care between reported and unreported euthanasia cases.
Results The survey response rate was 58.4% (3623/6202 eligible cases). The estimated total number of cases of euthanasia in Flanders in 2007 was 1040 (95% CI 970 to 1109), thus the incidence of euthanasia was estimated as 1.9% of all deaths (95% CI 1.6% to 2.3%). Approximately half (549/1040 (52.8%, 95% CI 43.9% to 60.5%)) of all estimated cases of euthanasia were reported to the Federal Control and Evaluation Committee. Physicians who perceived their case as euthanasia reported it in 93.1% (67/72) of cases. Cases of euthanasia were reported less often when the time by which life was shortened was less than one week compared with when the perceived life shortening was greater (37.3% v 74.1%; P<0.001). Unreported cases were generally dealt with less carefully than reported cases: a written request for euthanasia was more often absent (87.7% v 17.6% verbal request only; P<0.001), other physicians and caregivers specialised in palliative care were consulted less often (54.6% v 97.5%; 33.0% v 63.9%; P<0.001 for both), the life ending act was more often performed with opioids or sedatives (92.1% v 4.4%; P<0.001), and the drugs were more often administered by a nurse (41.3% v 0.0%; P<0.001).
Conclusions One out of two euthanasia cases is reported to the Federal Control and Evaluation Committee. Most non-reporting physicians do not perceive their act as euthanasia. Countries debating legalisation of euthanasia should simultaneously consider developing a policy facilitating the due care and reporting obligations of physicians.
Being able to die in one's place of choice is an indicator of the quality of end-of-life care. GPs may play a key role in exploring and honouring patients' preferences for place of death.
To examine how often GPs are informed about patients' preferred place of death, by whom and for which patients, and to study the expressed preferred place of death and how often patients die at their preferred place.
Design of study
One-year nationwide mortality retrospective study.
Sentinel Network of GPs in Belgium, 2006.
GPs' weekly registration of all deaths (patients aged ≥1 year).
A total of 798 non-sudden deaths were reported. GPs were informed of patients' preferred place of death in 46% of cases. GPs obtained this information directly from patients in 63%. GP awareness was positively associated with patients not being hospitalised in the last 3 months of life (odds ratio [OR] = 3.9; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 2.8 to 5.6), involvement of informal caregivers (OR = 3.3; 95% CI = 1.8 to 6.1), use of a multidisciplinary palliative care team (OR = 2.5; 95% CI = 1.8 to 3.5), and with presence of more than seven contacts between GP and patient or family in the last 3 months of life (OR = 3.0; 95% CI = 2.2 to 4.3). In instances where GPs were informed, more than half of patients (58%) preferred to die at home. Overall, 80% of patients died at their preferred place.
GPs are often unaware of their patients' preference for place of death. However, if GPs are informed, patients often die at their preferred location. Several healthcare characteristics might contribute to this and to a higher level of GP awareness.
advance care planning; end-of-life care; general practitioner; palliative care; preferred place of death; terminal care
Legalization of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide has been heavily debated in many countries. To help inform this debate, we describe the practices of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and the use of life-ending drugs without an explicit request from the patient, in Flanders, Belgium, where euthanasia is legal.
We mailed a questionnaire regarding the use of life-ending drugs with or without explicit patient request to physicians who certified a representative sample (n = 6927) of death certificates of patients who died in Flanders between June and November 2007.
The response rate was 58.4%. Overall, 208 deaths involving the use of life-ending drugs were reported: 142 (weighted prevalence 2.0%) were with an explicit patient request (euthanasia or assisted suicide) and 66 (weighted prevalence 1.8%) were without an explicit request. Euthanasia and assisted suicide mostly involved patients less than 80 years of age, those with cancer and those dying at home. Use of life-ending drugs without an explicit request mostly involved patients 80 years of older, those with a disease other than cancer and those in hospital. Of the deaths without an explicit request, the decision was not discussed with the patient in 77.9% of cases. Compared with assisted deaths with the patient’s explicit request, those without an explicit request were more likely to have a shorter length of treatment of the terminal illness, to have cure as a goal of treatment in the last week, to have a shorter estimated time by which life was shortened and to involve the administration of opioids.
Physician-assisted deaths with an explicit patient request (euthanasia and assisted suicide) and without an explicit request occurred in different patient groups and under different circumstances. Cases without an explicit request often involved patients whose diseases had unpredictable end-of-life trajectories. Although opioids were used in most of these cases, misconceptions seem to persist about their actual life-shortening effects.