Background: Each year, greater than a half million people die of cancer in the U.S. Despite progress in increasing access to palliative oncology services, end-of-life care still needs improvement. Measuring the quality of the end-of-life experience is difficult because of patient debility and reduced consciousness as death approaches. Family proxies have been proposed as valuable informants regarding the quality of end-of-life care. This article describes family proxy perspectives concerning care at the end of life in patients who died of advanced cancer.
Methods: In the context of a novel outpatient palliative care demonstration project, 125 family proxy respondents completed a structured survey by telephone 3 months to 6 months after the patient's death from breast, lung, or gastrointestinal cancer. Four key quality of care indicators were measured: decision-making and physician communication, location of death, hospice involvement, and end-of-life symptoms.
Results: Proxies reported that 78% to 81% of patients completed at least 1 form of advance directive and approximately half of them were helpful in guiding care. Communication with physicians regarding end-of-life treatment wishes occurred in 67% of cases, but only 57% of the patients actually made a plan with their physician to ensure that their wishes were followed. The majority of patients died in their location of choice, most often at home, and greater than half had hospice involvement for an average of 41.8 days before death. During the last week of life, the majority of patients experienced troublesome physical and emotional symptoms.
Conclusions: Measurement of proxy perspectives is feasible as an indicator of the quality of end-of-life care, and the results of the current study provide actionable data for areas of improvement in palliative oncology care.