In a qualitative study reported by Olav Lindqvist and colleagues, the range of nonpharmacological caregiving activities used in the last days of a patient's life are described.
In late-stage palliative cancer care, relief of distress and optimized well-being become primary treatment goals. Great strides have been made in improving and researching pharmacological treatments for symptom relief; however, little systematic knowledge exists about the range of non-pharmacological caregiving activities (NPCAs) staff use in the last days of a patient's life.
Methods and Findings
Within a European Commission Seventh Framework Programme project to optimize research and clinical care in the last days of life for patients with cancer, OPCARE9, we used a free-listing technique to identify the variety of NPCAs performed in the last days of life. Palliative care staff at 16 units in nine countries listed in detail NPCAs they performed over several weeks. In total, 914 statements were analyzed in relation to (a) the character of the statement and (b) the recipient of the NPCA. A substantial portion of NPCAs addressed bodily care and contact with patients and family members, with refraining from bodily care also described as a purposeful caregiving activity. Several forms for communication were described; information and advice was at one end of a continuum, and communicating through nonverbal presence and bodily contact at the other. Rituals surrounding death and dying included not only spiritual/religious issues, but also more subtle existential, legal, and professional rituals. An unexpected and hitherto under-researched area of focus was on creating an aesthetic, safe, and pleasing environment, both at home and in institutional care settings.
Based on these data, we argue that palliative care in the last days of life is multifaceted, with physical, psychological, social, spiritual, and existential care interwoven in caregiving activities. Providing for fundamental human needs close to death appears complex and sophisticated; it is necessary to better distinguish nuances in such caregiving to acknowledge, respect, and further develop end-of-life care.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
End-of-life care is a major public health issue, yet despite the inevitability of death, issues related to death and dying are often taboo, and, if mentioned, are often referred to as “palliative care.” There are detailed definitions of palliative care, but in essence, the purpose of palliative care is to relieve any suffering in patients who are dying from progressive illness and to provide the best possible quality of life for both the patient and his or her family. In order to achieve this aim, both pharmacological and non-pharmacological management is necessary, with the latter taking a central role. Recently, a European Commission Seventh Framework Programme project, OPCARE9, aimed to improve the care of dying patients in Europe and beyond by optimizing research and clinical care for patients with cancer in the last days of their life, especially regarding well-being and comfort as death becomes imminent.
Why Was This Study Done?
There is now a growing literature base in non-pharmacological management at the end of an individual's life, particularly in relation to psychological, ethical, and communication issues as well as family-focused and culturally appropriate care. Despite this progress, there is currently little systematic knowledge in how health workers use such non-pharmacological approaches in their efforts to maximize well-being and comfort in patients experiencing their very last days of life. Therefore, in order to advance knowledge in this important clinical area, in this study the researchers reviewed and identified the variety of non-pharmacological caregiving activities performed by different professionals in the last days and hours of life for patients with cancer (and their families) in palliative care settings in the countries that participated in OPCARE9.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers modified an anthropological approach to collect relevant information in participating European countries—Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK—and Argentina and New Zealand. Staff in palliative care settings generated a list of non-pharmacological caregiving activities after discussion about which interventions and activities they carried out with patients and families during the last days of life. This preliminary list of statements was added to if staff performed a new activity when in contact with patients or the patients' family during the last days of life. The researchers then used computer-assisted qualitative data analysis to code the statements.
Using this methodology, the researchers analyzed 914 statements of caregiving activities from 16 different facilities in nine countries. The greatest number of activities described some type of caregiving for an individual carried out through contact with his or her body, such as attending to diverse bodily needs (such as cleaning and moisturizing) while maintaining comfort and dignity. Listening, talking with, and understanding (particularly between professionals and the family) was the next most frequent activity, followed by creating an esthetical, safe, and pleasing environment for the dying person and his or her family, and necessary “backstage” activities, such as organizing paperwork or care plans. Other common activities included observing and assessing, which were often described as being carried out simultaneously with other interventions; just being present (described as increasingly important close to death); performing rituals surrounding death and dying (usually directed to families); guiding and facilitating (encompassing support in a compassionate manner); and finally, giving oral and written information and advice (usually to families).
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that providing for fundamental human needs close to death is complex and sophisticated but ultimately integrated into a common theme of caregiving. This study also identifies a number of areas needing further investigation, such as enhancing the sensory and general environment for the patient and family. Finally, this study suggests that developing a greater level of detail, such as improved terminology for end-of-life care, would enhance appreciation of the nuances and complexity present in non-pharmacological care provision during the last days of life, with potential benefit for clinical practice, teaching, and research.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001173.
The OPCARE9 website details more information about this end-of-life care initiative
The World Health Organization website defines palliative care, and Wikipedia gives more information (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
NHS Choices also provides information about end-of-life care