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
In the Netherlands, people with a wish to die can request physician assistance in dying. However, almost two thirds of the explicit requests do not result in physician assistance in dying. Some people with a wish to end life seek counselling outside the medical context to end their own life. The aim of this cross-sectional research was to obtain information about clients receiving counselling for non-physician assisted suicide, and the characteristics and outcome of the counselling itself.
All counsellors working with foundation De Einder (an organisation that offers professional counselling for people with a wish to end life) (N=12) filled in registration forms about all clients they counselled in 2011 and/or 2012. Only client registration data forms with at least one face-to-face contact with the counsellor were selected for analysis (n=595).
More than half of the clients were over 65 years old. More than one third of the clients had no wish to end life and 16% had an urgent wish to end life. Almost two thirds of the clients had not requested physician assistance in dying. Half of the clients had others involved in the counselling. More than half of the clients received explicit practical information concerning non-physician assisted suicide, while 13% of all clients actually ended their own life through non-physician assisted suicide. Clients without a (severe) disease were older than clients with a severe disease. They also had more problems of old age and existential suffering and more often wanted to be prepared for self-determination. The clients without a (severe) disease more often had no wish to end life and requested physician assistance in dying less often than clients with a severe disease.
While some of the clients receiving counselling for non-physician assisted suicide seem to be looking for a peaceful death to escape from current suffering, others have no wish to end life and seem to be looking for reassurance in anticipation of prospective suffering. If non-physician assisted suicide is be distinguished from ‘mutilating’ suicide, this asks for a different approach than suicide crisis intervention, for example suicide-attempt prevention.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/1472-6963-14-455) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Counselling; Non-physician assisted suicide; Suicide/assisted suicide; Foundation De Einder; Suicide-attempt prevention; Self-determination; Autonomy
Patients are often encouraged to participate in treatment decision-making. Most studies on this subject focus on choosing between different curative treatment types. In the last phase of life treatment decisions differ as they often put more emphasis on weighing quantity against quality of life, such as whether or not to start treatment aimed at life prolongation but with the possibility of side effects. This study aimed to obtain insight into cancer patients' preferences and the reasons for patients' preferred role in treatment decision-making at the end of life.
28 advanced cancer patients were included at the start of their first line treatment. In-depth interviews were held prior to upcoming treatment decisions whether or not to start a life prolonging treatment. The Control Preference Scale was used to start discussing the extent and type of influence patients wanted to have concerning upcoming treatment decision-making. Interviews were audio taped and transcribed.
All patients wanted their physician to participate in the treatment decision-making process. The extent to which patients themselves preferred to participate seemed to depend on how patients saw their own role or assessed their own capabilities for participating in treatment decision-making. Patients foresaw a shift in the preferred level of participation to a more active role depending in the later phase of illness when life prolongation would become more limited and quality of life would become more important.
Patients vary in how much involvement they would like to have in upcoming treatment decision-making. Individual patients' preferences may change in the course of the illness, with a shift to more active participation in the later phases. Communication about patients' expectations, wishes and preferences for participation in upcoming treatment decisions is of great importance. An approach in which these topics are openly discussed would be beneficial.
Dying at home and dying at the preferred place of death are advocated to be desirable outcomes of palliative care. More insight is needed in their usefulness as quality indicators. Our objective is to describe whether “the percentage of patients dying at home” and “the percentage of patients who died in their place of preference” are feasible and informative quality indicators.
Methods and Findings
A mortality follow-back study was conducted, based on data recorded by representative GP networks regarding home-dwelling patients who died non-suddenly in Belgium (n = 1036), the Netherlands (n = 512), Italy (n = 1639) or Spain (n = 565). “The percentage of patients dying at home” ranged between 35.3% (Belgium) and 50.6% (the Netherlands) in the four countries, while “the percentage of patients dying at their preferred place of death” ranged between 67.8% (Italy) and 86.0% (Spain). Both indicators were strongly associated with palliative care provision by the GP (odds ratios of 1.55–13.23 and 2.30–6.63, respectively). The quality indicator concerning the preferred place of death offers a broader view than the indicator concerning home deaths, as it takes into account all preferences met in all locations. However, GPs did not know the preferences for place of death in 39.6% (the Netherlands) to 70.3% (Italy), whereas the actual place of death was known in almost all cases.
GPs know their patients’ actual place of death, making the percentage of home deaths a feasible indicator for collection by GPs. However, patients’ preferred place of death was often unknown to the GP. We therefore recommend using information from relatives as long as information from GPs on the preferred place of death is lacking. Timely communication about the place where patients want to be cared for at the end of life remains a challenge for GPs.
Patients are increasingly expected and asked to be involved in health care decisions. In this decision-making process, preferences for participation are important. In this systematic review we aim to provide an overview the literature related to the congruence between patients’ preferences and their perceived participation in medical decision-making. We also explore the direction of mismatched and outline factors associated with congruence.
A systematic review was performed on patient participation in medical decision-making. Medline, PsycINFO, CINAHL, EMBASE and the Cochrane Library databases up to September 2012, were searched and all studies were rigorously critically appraised. In total 44 papers were included, they sampled contained 52 different patient samples.
Mean of congruence between preference for and perceived participation in decision-making was 60% (49 and 70 representing 25th and 75th percentiles). If no congruence was found, of 36 patient samples most patients preferred more involvement and of 9 patient samples most patients preferred less involvement. Factors associated with preferences the most investigated were age and educational level. Younger patients preferred more often an active or shared role as did higher educated patients.
This review suggests that a similar approach to all patients is not likely to meet patients’ wishes, since preferences for participation vary among patients. Health care professionals should be sensitive to patients individual preferences and communicate about patients’ participation wishes on a regular basis during their illness trajectory.
Patient participation; Decision-making; Patient involvement; Congruence; Review
Since many patients spend most of the time at home at the end of life, this may affect the burden for family carers and constitute a risk factor for the patients’ hospitalisation. This study aimed to explore family carers’ burden in the final three months of the patient’s life, from the perspective of both carers and general practitioners (GPs), and to assess whether family burden, as defined by the GP, is associated with hospitalisation.
A cross-sectional nationwide survey among GPs and family carers was performed. Participants were 194 GPs and 74 family carers of patients who died non-suddenly. Additionally, in-depth interviews were conducted with 18 family carers. For the quantitative analyses descriptive statistics, weighted Kappa and multivariate logistic regression analysis was performed. For the qualitative part thematic analysis was conducted.
The proportion of family carers experiencing a fairly heavy or severe burden increased significantly from 32% (second and third months before death) to 66% (one week before death). Most carers (95%) felt an emotional burden and 29% felt a physical burden in the final week. Three-quarters of carers did not perceive their burden as a problem because caring often felt rewarding. No significant association was found between the characteristics of family caregivers or professional care and the degree of family caregiver burden. Also, there was no significant evidence that patients of family carers for whom the GP assessed a fairly heavy to severe burden, were more likely to be hospitalised.
The different overall assessment of family carers’ burden between GPs and family carers and the increasing emotional and physical burden of family carers towards the end constitute relevant information for GPs that will help them understand and anticipate carers’ personal needs.
Palliative care; General practitioner; Family carer; Burden; Hospitalisation; Mixed method
Background: The rising number of deaths from cancer and other life-limiting illnesses is accompanied by a growing number of family carers who provide long-lasting care, including end-of-life care. This population-based epidemiological study aimed to describe and compare in four European countries the prevalence of and factors associated with physical or emotional overburden and difficulties in covering care-related costs among family carers of people at the end of life. Methods: A cross-national retrospective study was conducted via nationwide representative sentinel networks of general practitioners (GPs). Using a standardized form, GPs in Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy and Spain recorded information on the last 3 months of life of every deceased adult practice patient (1 January 2009–31 December 2010). Sudden deaths were excluded. Results: We studied 4466 deaths. GPs judged family carers of 28% (Belgium), 30% (The Netherlands), 35% (Spain) and 71% (Italy) of patients as physically/emotionally overburdened (P < 0.001). For 8% (Spain), 14% (Belgium), 36% (The Netherlands) and 43% (Italy) patients, GPs reported difficulties in covering care-related costs (P < 0.001). Patients <85 years of age (Belgium, Italy) had higher odds of having physically/emotionally overburdened family carers and financial burden. Death from non-malignant illness (vs. cancer) (Belgium and Italy) and dying at home compared with other locations (The Netherlands and Italy) were associated with higher odds of difficulties in covering care-related costs. Conclusion: In all countries studied, and particularly in Italy, GPs observed a considerable extent of physical/emotional overburden as well as difficulties in covering care-related costs among family carers of people at the end of life. Implications for health- and social care policies are discussed.
Patients who are cared for in long-term care facilities are vulnerable to lose personal dignity. An instrument measuring factors that influence dignity can be used to better target dignity-conserving care to an individual patient, but no such instrument is yet available for the long-term care setting. The aim of this study was to create the Measurement Instrument for Dignity AMsterdam - for Long-Term Care facilities (MIDAM-LTC) and to assess its validity and intra-observer agreement.
Thirteen items specific for the LTC setting were added to the earlier developed, more general MIDAM. The MIDAM-LTC consisted of 39 symptoms or experiences for which presence as well as influence on dignity were asked, and a single item score for overall personal dignity. Questionnaires containing the MIDAM-LTC were administered face-to-face at two moments (with a 1-week interval) to 95 nursing home residents residing on general medical wards of six nursing homes in the Netherlands. Constructs related to dignity (WHO Well-Being Five Index, quality of life and physical health status) were also measured. Ten residents answered the questions while thinking aloud. Content validity, construct validity and intra-observer agreement were examined.
Nine of the 39 items barely exerted influence on dignity. Eight of them could be omitted from the MIDAM-LTC, because the thinking aloud method revealed sensible explanations for their small influence on dignity. Residents reported that they missed no important items. Hypotheses to support construct validity, about the strength of correlations between on the one hand personal dignity and on the other hand well-being, quality of life or physical health status, were confirmed. On average, 83% of the scores given for each item’s influence on dignity were practically consistent over 1 week, and more than 80% of the residents gave consistent scores for the single item score for overall dignity.
The MIDAM-LTC has good content validity, construct validity and intra-observer agreement. By omitting 8 items from the instrument, a good balance between comprehensiveness and feasibility is realised. The MIDAM-LTC allows researchers to examine the concept of dignity more closely in the LTC setting, and can assist caregivers in providing dignity-conserving care.
Dignity; Measurement instrument; Long-term care; Clinimetrics
PaTz (an acronym for ‘PAlliatieve Thuis Zorg’; palliative care at home) is an intervention to improve palliative care provision and strengthen the generalist knowledge of palliative care. In PaTz general practitioners and district nurses meet on a regular basis to identify patients with palliative care needs and to discuss care for these patients. This study explores experiences with regard to collaboration between general practitioners and district nurses, and perceived benefits of and barriers for implementation of PaTz.
This study is conducted within the primary care setting. Participants were 24 general practitioners who filled in a questionnaire, and seven general practitioners, five district nurses and two palliative care consultants who attended one of two focus groups.
PaTz led to improved collaboration. Participants felt informational and emotional support from other PaTz participants. Also they felt that continuity of care was enhanced by PaTz. Practical recommendations for implementation were: meetings every 6 to 8 weeks, regular attendance from both general practitioners and district nurses, presence of a palliative care consultant, and a strong chairman.
PaTz is successful in enhancing collaboration in primary palliative care and easy to implement. Participants felt it improved continuity of care and knowledge on palliative care. Further research is needed to investigate whether patient and carer outcomes improve.
Palliative care; End of life care; Primary health care; Interprofessional relations; General practitioner; Primary care nursing
Due to a rising number of deaths from cancer and other chronic diseases a growing number of people experience complex symptoms and require palliative care towards the end of life. However, population-based data on the number of people receiving palliative care in Europe are scarce. The objective of this study is to examine, in four European countries, the number of people receiving palliative care in the last three months of life and the factors associated with receiving palliative care.
Cross-national retrospective study. Over two years (2009–2010), GPs belonging to representative epidemiological surveillance networks in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain registered weekly all deaths of patients (≥18 years) in their practices and the care they received in the last three months of life using a standardized form. Sudden deaths were excluded.
We studied 4,466 deaths. GPs perceived to have delivered palliative care to 50% of patients in Belgium, 55% in Italy, 62% in the Netherlands, and 65% in Spain (p<.001). Palliative care specialists attended to 29% of patients in the Netherlands, 39% in Italy, 45% in Spain, and 47% in Belgium (p<.001). Specialist palliative care lasted a median (inter-quartile range) of 15 (23) days in Belgium to 30 (70) days in Italy (p<.001). Cancer patients were more likely than non-cancer patients to receive palliative care in all countries as were younger patients in Italy and Spain with regard to specialist palliative care.
Although palliative care is established in the countries studied, there are considerable differences in its provision. Two potentially underserved groups emerge non-cancer patients in all countries and older people in Italy and Spain. Future research should examine how differences in palliative care use relate to both patient characteristics and existing national health care policies.
Primary care physicians provide palliative home care. In cancer patients dying at home in the Netherlands (45% of all cancer patients) euthanasia in about one out of every seven patients indicates unbearable suffering. Symptom prevalence, relationship between intensity of symptoms and unbearable suffering, evolvement of symptoms and unbearability over time and quality of unbearable suffering were studied in end-of-life cancer patients in primary care.
44 general practitioners during three years recruited cancer patients estimated to die within six months. Every two months patients quantified intensity as well as unbearability of 69 symptoms with the State-of-Suffering-V (SOS-V). Also overall unbearable suffering was quantified. The five-point rating scale ranged from 1 (not at all) to 5 (hardly can be worse). For symptoms assessed to be unbearable the nature of the suffering was additionally investigated with open-ended questions. The final interviews were analyzed; for longitudinal evolvement also the pre-final interviews were analyzed. Symptom intensity scores 4 and 5 were defined to indicate high intensity. Symptom unbearability scores 4 and 5 were defined to indicate unbearable suffering. Two raters categorized the qualitative descriptions of unbearable suffering.
Out of 148 requested patients 51% participated; 64 patients were followed up until death. The SOS-V was administered at least once in 60 patients (on average 30 days before death) and at least twice in 33 patients. Weakness was the most frequent unbearable symptom (57%). Pain was unbearable in 25%. Pain, loss of control over one’s life and fear of future suffering frequently were unbearable (89-92%) when symptom intensity was high. Loss of control over one’s life, vomiting and not being able to do important things frequently were unbearable (52-80%) when symptom intensity was low. Unbearable weakness significantly increased between pre-final and final interview. Physical suffering, loss of meaning, loss of autonomy, experiencing to be a burden, fear of future suffering and worrying more frequently occurred in patients suffering unbearably overall.
Weakness was the most prevalent unbearable symptom in an end-of-life primary care cancer population. Physical suffering, loss of meaning and loss of autonomy more frequently occurred in patients who suffered unbearably overall.
: Selective participation in retrospective studies of families recruited after the patient's death may threaten generalizability of reports on end-of-life experiences.
To assess possible selection bias in retrospective study of dementia at the end of life using family reports.
Two physician teams covering six nursing home facilities in the Netherlands reported on 117 of 119 consecutive decedents within two weeks after death unaware of after-death family participation in the study. They reported on characteristics; treatment and care; overall patient outcomes such as comfort, nursing care, and outcomes; and their own perspectives on the experience. We compared results between decedents with and without family participation.
The family response rate was 55%. There were no significant differences based on participation versus nonparticipation in demographics and other nursing home resident characteristics, treatment and care, or overall resident outcome. However, among participating families, physicians perceived higher-quality aspects of nursing care and outcome, better consensus between staff and family on treatment, and a more peaceful death. Participation was less likely with involvement of a new family member in the last month.
Families may be more likely to participate in research with more harmonious teamwork in end-of-life caregiving. Where family participation is an enrollment criterion, comparing demographics alone may not capture possible selection bias, especially in more subjective measures. Selection bias toward more positive experiences, which may include the physician's and probably also the family's experiences, should be considered if representativeness is aimed for. Future work should address selection bias in other palliative settings and countries, and with prospective recruitment.
Maintaining dignity is an important element of end-of-life care and also of the care given in nursing homes. Factors influencing personal dignity have been studied from both nursing home residents’ and staff’s perspective. Little is however known about the way nursing home staff perceive and promote the personal dignity of individual residents in daily practice, or about staff’s experiences with preserving dignity within the nursing home. The aim of this study is to gain more insight in this.
A qualitative descriptive interview study was designed, in which in-depth interviews were performed with 13 physicians and 15 nurses. They expressed their views on the personal dignity of 30 recently admitted nursing home residents on the general medical wards of four nursing homes in The Netherlands. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed following the principles of thematic analysis.
According to both physicians and nurses, physical impairment and being dependent on others threatened the residents’ dignity. Whether or not this led to a violation of an individual resident’s dignity, depended - in staff’s opinion - on the resident’s ability to show resilience and to keep his/her individuality. Staff mentioned treating residents with respect and taking care of their privacy as most important elements of dignity-conserving care and strived to treat the residents as they would like to be treated themselves. They could often mention aspects that were important for a particular resident’s dignity. But, when asked what they could contribute to a particular resident’s dignity, they often mentioned general aspects of dignity-conserving care, which could apply to most nursing home residents. By attempting to give dignity-conserving care, physicians and nurses often experienced conflicting values in daily care and barriers caused by the lack of resources.
Tailoring dignity-conserving care to an individual nursing home resident appears hard to bring about in daily practice. Both attention to solve contextual barriers within the nursing home as well as more awareness of staff members for their own values, which they take as a reference point in treating residents, is needed to promote personal dignity in the nursing home setting.
Dignity; Elderly care physicians; End-of-life issues; Interviews; Nurses; Nursing home; Older people
Most nursing home residents spend the remainder of their life, until death, within a nursing home. As preserving dignity is an important aim of the care given here, insight into the way residents experience their dignity throughout their entire admission period is valuable.
To investigate if and how nursing home residents’ personal dignity changes over the course of time, and what contributes to this.
A longitudinal qualitative study.
Multiple in-depth interviews, with an interval of six months, were carried out with 22 purposively sampled nursing home residents of the general medical wards of four nursing homes in The Netherlands. Transcripts were analyzed following the principles of thematic analysis.
From admission onwards, some residents experienced an improved sense of dignity, while others experienced a downward trend, a fluctuating one or no change at all. Two mechanisms were especially important for a nursing home resident to maintain or regain personal dignity: the feeling that one is in control of his life and the feeling that one is regarded as a worthwhile person. The acquirement of both feelings could be supported by 1) finding a way to cope with one’s situation; 2) getting acquainted with the new living structures in the nursing home and therefore feeling more at ease; 3) physical improvement (with or without an electric wheelchair); 4) being socially involved with nursing home staff, other residents and relatives; and 5) being amongst disabled others and therefore less prone to exposures of disrespect from the outer world.
Although the direction in which a resident’s personal dignity develops is also dependent on one’s character and coping capacities, nursing home staff can contribute to dignity by creating optimal conditions to help a nursing home resident recover feelings of control and of being regarded as a worthwhile person.
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
Limited decision-making capacity (DMC) of older people affects their abilities to communicate about their preferences regarding end-of-life care. In an advance directive (AD) people can write down preferences for (non)treatment or appoint a proxy as a representative in (non)treatment choices in case of limited DMC.
The aim is to study limited DMC during the end of life and compare the background, (satisfaction with) care and communication characteristics of people with and without limited DMC. Furthermore, the aim is to describe patient proxies’ opinions about experiences with the use of (appointed proxy) ADs.
Using a questionnaire, data were collected from proxies of participants of a representative sample of the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam (n=168) and a purposive sample of the Advance Directive cohort study (n=184). Differences between groups (with and without limited DMC, and/or with and without AD) were tested with chi-square tests, using a level of significance of p < 0.05.
At a month before death 27% of people had limited DMC; this increased to 67% of people having limited DMC in the last week of life. The care received was in accordance with the patient’s preferences for the majority of older people, although less often for people who had limited DMC for more than a week. The majority of the proxies were satisfied with the communication between physician and the patient and them, regardless of DMC of the patient. Of people with an AD, a small majority of relatives indicated that the AD had been of additional value. Finally, no differences were found in the role of the relative and the satisfaction with this role between people with and without a proxy AD.
Although relatives have positive experiences with ADs, our study does not provide strong evidence that (proxy) ADs are very influential in the last phase of life. They can best be seen as a tool for advance care planning.
Decision-making capacity; End-of-life care; Older people; Advance directives; Appointed proxy
Older patients often experience sub-standard communication in the palliative phase of illness. Due to the importance of good communication in patient-centred end-of-life care, it is essential to understand the factors which influence older patients’ communication with physicians. This study examines older patients’ attitudes towards, and experiences of, patient-physician end-of-life (EoL) communication in three European countries.
A secondary analysis of interviews from British, Dutch and Belgian patients over the age of 60 with a progressive terminal illness was conducted. Cross-cutting themes were identified using a thematic approach.
Themes from 30 interviews (Male n = 20, Median age 78.5) included: confidence and trust; disclosure and awareness; and participation in decision-making. Confidence and trust were reinforced by physicians’ availability, time and genuine attention and hindered by misdiagnoses and poor communication style. Most participants preferred full disclosure, though some remained deliberately ill-informed to avoid distress. Patients expressed a variety of preferences for and experiences of involvement in medical EoL decision-making and a few complained that information was only provided about the physician's preferred treatment.
A variety of experiences and attitudes regarding disclosure and participation in decision-making were reported from each country, suggesting that communication preferences are highly individual. It is important that physicians are sensitive to this diversity and avoid stereotyping. In regard to communication style, physicians are advised to provide clear explanations, avoid jargon, and continually check understanding. Both the ‘informed’ and the ‘shared’ patient-physician decision-making models assume patients make rational choices based on a clear understanding of treatment options. This idealized situation was often not reflected in patients’ experiences.
Palliative; End-of-life; Communication; Decision-making; Older patients; Qualitative
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
Unbearable suffering most frequently is reported in end-of-life cancer patients in primary care. However, research seldom addresses unbearable suffering. The aim of this study was to comprehensively investigate the various aspects of unbearable suffering in end-of-life cancer patients cared for in primary care.
Forty four general practitioners recruited end-of-life cancer patients with an estimated life expectancy of half a year or shorter. The inclusion period was three years, follow-up lasted one additional year. Practices were monitored bimonthly to identify new cases. Unbearable aspects in five domains and overall unbearable suffering were quantitatively assessed (5-point scale) through patient interviews every two months with a comprehensive instrument. Scores of 4 (serious) or 5 (hardly can be worse) were defined unbearable. The last interviews before death were analyzed. Sources providing strength to bear suffering were identified through additional open-ended questions.
Seventy six out of 148 patients (51%) requested to participate consented; the attrition rate was 8%, while 8% were alive at the end of follow-up. Sixty four patients were followed up until death; in 60 patients interviews were complete. Overall unbearable suffering occurred in 28%. A mean of 18 unbearable aspects was present in patients with serious (score 4) overall unbearable suffering. Overall, half of the unbearable aspects involved the domain of traditional medical symptoms. The most frequent unbearable aspects were weakness, general discomfort, tiredness, pain, loss of appetite and not sleeping well (25%-57%). The other half of the unbearable aspects involved the domains of function, personhood, environment, and nature and prognosis of disease. The most frequent unbearable aspects were impaired activities, feeling dependent, help needed with housekeeping, not being able to do important things, trouble accepting the situation, being bedridden and loss of control (27%-55%). The combination of love and support was the most frequent source (67%) providing strength to bear suffering.
Overall unbearable suffering occurred in one in every four end-of-life cancer patients. Half of the unbearable aspects involved medical symptoms, the other half concerned psychological, social and existential dimensions. Physicians need to comprehensively assess suffering and provide psychosocial interventions alongside physical symptom management.
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
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
Maintaining dignity, the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect, is considered as a goal of palliative care. The aim of this study was to analyse the construct of personal dignity and to assess the content validity of the Patient Dignity Inventory (PDI) in people with an advance directive in the Netherlands.
Data were collected within the framework of an advance directives cohort study. This cohort study is aiming to get a better insight into how decisions are made at the end of life with regard to advance directives in the Netherlands. One half of the cohort (n = 2404) received an open-ended question concerning factors relevant to dignity. Content labels were assigned to issues mentioned in the responses to the open-ended question. The other half of the cohort (n = 2537) received a written questionnaire including the PDI. The relevance and comprehensiveness of the PDI items were assessed with the COSMIN checklist ('COnsensus-based Standards for the selection of health status Measurement INstruments').
The majority of the PDI items were found to be relevant for the construct to be measured, the study population, and the purpose of the study but the items were not completely comprehensive. The responses to the open-ended question indicated that communication and care-related aspects were also important for dignity.
This study demonstrated that the PDI items were relevant for people with an advance directive in the Netherlands. The comprehensiveness of the items can be improved by including items concerning communication and care.
Pain is still one of the most frequently occurring symptoms at the end of life, although it can be treated satisfactorily in most cases if the physician has adequate knowledge. In the Netherlands, almost 60% of the patients with non-acute illnesses die at home where end of life care is coordinated by the general practitioner (GP); about 30% die in hospitals (cared for by clinical specialists), and about 10% in nursing homes (cared for by elderly care physicians).
The research question of this study is: what is the level of knowledge of Dutch physicians concerning pain management and the use of opioids at the end of life?
A written questionnaire was sent to a random sample of physicians of specialties most often involved in end of life care in the Netherlands. The questionnaire was completed by 406 physicians, response rate 41%.
Almost all physicians were aware of the most basal knowledge about opioids, e.g. that it is important for treatment purposes to distinguish nociceptive from neuropathic pain (97%). Approximately half of the physicians (46%) did not know that decreased renal function raises plasma concentration of morphine(-metabolites) and 34% of the clinical specialists erroneously thought opioids are the favoured drug for palliative sedation.
Although 91% knew that opioids titrated against pain do not shorten life, 10% sometimes or often gave higher dosages than needed with the explicit aim to hasten death. About half felt sometimes or often pressured by relatives to hasten death by increasing opioiddosage.
The large majority (83%) of physicians was interested in additional education about subjects related to the end of life, the most popular subject was opioid rotation (46%).
Although the basic knowledge of physicians was adequate, there seemed to be a lack of knowledge in several areas, which can be a barrier for good pain management at the end of life. From this study four areas emerge, in which it seems likely that an improvement can improve the quality of pain management at the end of life for many patients in the Netherlands: 1)palliative sedation; 2)expected effect of opioids on survival; and 3) opioid rotation.
What is the level of knowledge of pharmacists concerning pain management and the use of opioids at the end of life, and how do they cooperate with physicians?
A written questionnaire was sent to a sample of community and hospital pharmacists in the Netherlands. The questionnaire was completed by 182 pharmacists (response rate 45%).
Pharmacists were aware of the most basic knowledge about opioids. Among the respondents, 29% erroneously thought that life-threatening respiratory depression was a danger with pain control, and 38% erroneously believed that opioids were the preferred drug for palliative sedation. One in three responding pharmacists did not think his/her theoretical knowledge was sufficient to provide advice on pain control. Most pharmacists had working agreements with physicians on euthanasia (81%), but fewer had working agreements on palliative sedation (46%) or opioid therapy (25%). Based on the experience of most of responding pharmacists (93%), physicians were open to unsolicited advice on opioid prescriptions. The majority of community pharmacists (94%) checked opioid prescriptions most often only after dispensing, while it was not a common practice among the majority of hospital pharmacists (68%) to check prescriptions at all.
Although the basic knowledge of most pharmacists was adequate, based on the responses to the questionnaire, there seems to be a lack of knowledge in several areas, which may hamper pharmacists in improving the quality of care when giving advice to physicians and preventing or correcting mistakes if necessary. If education is improved, a more active role of the pharmacist may improve the quality of end-of-life pharmacotherapy.
Opioids; Pain management; Pharmacists; Knowledge; Education; Multidisciplinary cooperation
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.