Does palliative care have a future in the emergency department? Discussions with attending emergency physicians

J Pain Symptom Manage. 2012 Jan;43(1):1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2011.03.022. Epub 2011 Jul 30.


Context: Palliative care focuses on the relief of pain and suffering and achieving the best possible quality of life for patients. Although traditionally delivered in the inpatient setting, emergency departments (EDs) are a new focus for palliative care consultation teams.

Objectives: To explore attitudes and beliefs among emergency care providers regarding the provision of palliative care services in the ED.

Methods: Three semistructured focus groups were conducted with attending emergency physicians from an academic medical center, a public hospital center, and a community hospital. The discussions were digitally recorded and transcribed to conduct a thematic analysis using grounded theory. A coding scheme was iteratively developed to subsequently identify themes and subthemes that emerged from the interviews.

Results: Twenty emergency physicians participated (mean age 41 years, range 31-61 years, median practice time nine years, 40% female). Providers acknowledged many benefits of palliative care presence in the ED, including provision of a specialized skill set, time to discuss goals of care, and an opportunity to intervene for seriously ill or injured patients. Providers believed that concerns about medicolegal issues impaired their ability to forgo treatments where risks outweigh benefits. Additionally, the culture of emergency medicine-to provide stabilization of acute medical emergencies-was sometimes at odds with the culture of palliative care, which balances quality of life with the burdens of invasive treatments. Some providers also felt it was the primary physician's responsibility, and not their own, to address goals of care. Finally, some providers expressed concern that palliative care consultation was only available on weekdays during daytime hours. Automatic consultation based on predetermined criteria was suggested as a way to avoid conflicts with patients and family.

Conclusion: Emergency providers identified many benefits to palliative care consultation. Solving logistical problems and developing clear indications for consultation might help increase the use of such services.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interdepartmental Relations*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New York
  • Palliative Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Physicians / statistics & numerical data*
  • Referral and Consultation / statistics & numerical data*