Background: The number of palliative care patients who live at home and have non-curable life-threatening diseases is increasing. This is largely a result of modern palliative care techniques (e.g. specialised out-of-hospital palliative medical care services), changes in healthcare policy and the availability of home care services. Accordingly, pre-hospital emergency physicians today are more likely to be involved in out-of-hospital emergency treatment of palliative care patients with advanced disease.
Methods: In a prospective multi-centre study, we analysed all palliative emergency care calls during a 24-month period across four emergency services in Germany. Participating pre-hospital emergency physicians were rated according to their expertise in emergency and palliative care as follows--group 1: pre-hospital emergency physicians with high experience in emergency and palliative medical care, group 2: pre-hospital emergency physicians with high experience in emergency medical care but less experience in palliative medical care and group 3: pre-hospital emergency physicians with low experience in palliative and emergency medical care.
Results: During the period of interest, the centres received 361 emergency calls requiring a response to palliative care patients (2.8% of all 12,996 emergency calls). Ten percent of all patients were treated by group 1; 42% were treated by group 2 and 47% were treated by group 3. There was a statistically significant difference in the treatment of palliative care patients (e.g. transfer to hospital, symptom control, end-of-life decision) as a result of the level of expertise of the investigated pre-hospital emergency physicians (p< 0.01).
Conclusions: In Germany, out-of-hospital emergency medical treatment of palliative care patients depends on the expertise in palliative medical care of the pre-hospital emergency physicians who respond to the call. In our investigation, best out-of-hospital palliative medical care was given by pre-hospital emergency physicians who had significant expertise in palliative and emergency medical care. Our results suggest that it may be necessary to take the core principles of palliative care into consideration when conducting out-of-hospital emergency medical treatment of palliative care patients.