To evaluate the effectiveness of palliative day care in improving pain, symptom control, and quality of life (QOL), 120 consecutive new referrals to five specialist palliative day care centers were recruited into a prospective comparative study. Fifty-three comparison patients were identified as those patients receiving usual palliative care services (home care, inpatient care), but did not attend day care. Patients were assessed at 3 interviews (baseline, 6-8 weeks, and 12-15 weeks) using measures of health-related quality of life: McGill Quality of Life Questionnaire (MQOL) and Palliative Care Outcome Scale (POS). There were two main analyses: 1) patient demographic data were analyzed using chi-square (chi(2)), and 2) QOL data were compared, based on distribution of scores, using the Mann-Whitney test (MQOL and POS), and Wilcoxon Signed Rank for within group differences (POS data only); P < 0.05 was taken as significant. The patients were representative of those attending palliative day care in the UK. At baseline, the day care group were (non-significantly) worse than the comparison group in the MQOL support domain (P = 0.065). The comparison group had marginally more severe pain at baseline (P = 0.053) and more severe symptoms at second assessment (P = 0.025). Both patient groups maintained overall health-related quality of life during the three months of the study. Palliative day care was not found to improve overall health-related quality of life. The limitations of the QOL measures in identifying the effects (patient outcomes) of palliative day care and the differences between the two patient groups (age, employment, unequal sample sizes) were limitations of the study and indicate the need for further research in this area.