The 'dis-ease' of dying: challenges in nursing care of the dying in the acute hospital setting. A qualitative observational study

Palliat Med. 2013 Sep;27(8):757-64. doi: 10.1177/0269216313477176. Epub 2013 Feb 26.


Background: Changes in health care and an ageing population have meant that more people are dying in the acute hospital setting. While palliative care principles have resulted in quality care for the dying, many patients die in an acute care, still receiving aggressive/resuscitative care.

Aims: The aims were to explore nurses' 'recognition of' and 'responsiveness to' dying patients and to understand the nurses' influence on end-of-life care.

Design: A qualitative approach was taken utilising non-participant observation to elicit rich data, followed by focus groups and individual semi-structured interviews for clarification.

Setting/participants: This study was conducted in two acute medical wards in one health service, identified as having the highest rates of death, once palliative care and critical care areas were excluded. Twenty-five nurses consented to participate, and 20 episodes of observation were conducted.

Results: Nurses took a passive role in recognising dying, providing active care until a medical officer's declaration of dying. Ward design, nurse allocation and nurses' attitude to death impacts patient care. End-of-life care in a single room can have negative consequences for the dying. Nurses demonstrated varying degrees of discomfort, indicating that they were underprepared for this role.

Conclusion: When patients are terminally ill, acknowledgement of dying is essential in providing appropriate care. It should not be assumed that all nurses are adequately prepared to provide dying care. Further work is necessary to investigate how the attitudes of nurses towards caring for dying patients in the acute hospital setting may impact care of the dying patient.

Keywords: End-of-life care; attitude to death; nursing; palliative care; terminally ill.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Death
  • Education, Nursing / standards
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Life Expectancy
  • Nurse-Patient Relations
  • Nurses / psychology
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital / education*
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital / psychology*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Terminal Care / psychology
  • Terminal Care / standards*