Background: Due to a rising number of deaths from cancer and other chronic diseases a growing number of people experience complex symptoms and require palliative care towards the end of life. However, population-based data on the number of people receiving palliative care in Europe are scarce. The objective of this study is to examine, in four European countries, the number of people receiving palliative care in the last three months of life and the factors associated with receiving palliative care.
Methods: Cross-national retrospective study. Over two years (2009-2010), GPs belonging to representative epidemiological surveillance networks in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain registered weekly all deaths of patients (≥ 18 years) in their practices and the care they received in the last three months of life using a standardized form. Sudden deaths were excluded.
Results: We studied 4,466 deaths. GPs perceived to have delivered palliative care to 50% of patients in Belgium, 55% in Italy, 62% in the Netherlands, and 65% in Spain (p<.001). Palliative care specialists attended to 29% of patients in the Netherlands, 39% in Italy, 45% in Spain, and 47% in Belgium (p<.001). Specialist palliative care lasted a median (inter-quartile range) of 15 (23) days in Belgium to 30 (70) days in Italy (p<.001). Cancer patients were more likely than non-cancer patients to receive palliative care in all countries as were younger patients in Italy and Spain with regard to specialist palliative care.
Conclusions: Although palliative care is established in the countries studied, there are considerable differences in its provision. Two potentially underserved groups emerge non-cancer patients in all countries and older people in Italy and Spain. Future research should examine how differences in palliative care use relate to both patient characteristics and existing national health care policies.