Background: The number of palliative care consultation services is growing, yet little is known about how program characteristics change over time.
Objective: Compare changes in the characteristics of palliative care programs and palliative care consultation services in 2007 and 2011.
Design: We surveyed all hospitals in California in 2011 and compared palliative care program and palliative care consultation service characteristics with survey results from 2007.
Results: There were 41 new palliative care programs since 2007; 17 programs closed between 2007 and 2011. Hospital characteristics associated with the closure of a palliative care program included a hospital size of 1-149 beds versus 150 or more (p=0.03), for-profit status (p=0.001), and having no system affiliation (p=0.0001). The prevalence of palliative care consultation services was 33% in 2007 and 37% in 2011 (p=0.3). At both time periods nearly all palliative care consultation services (98%) were available onsite during weekday business hours and only half were available at other times (p=0.4). There was an increase (p=0.002) in nurse/physician full-time equivalent (FTE; 2007, mean=1.5; 95% confidence interval [CI]=1.3-1.7; 2011, mean=1.9; 95% CI=1.6-2.2) but fewer teams reported having social workers (58% versus 80%, p=0.002) and chaplains (58% versus 77%, p=0.0001) in 2011. Over half of the palliative care consultation services reported seeing less than 50% of patients who would benefit from a consultation (2007: 59%, 2011=50%, p=0.2), yet most also reported struggling to cope with patient volume (2007: 62%; 2011: 66%, p=0.5).
Conclusions: Fewer than half of hospitals in California offer a palliative care program and many close over time. Making palliative care consultation services a condition of participation by insurers could make hospital palliative care consultation services universal. Mechanisms need to be established to improve staffing levels, maintain the interdisciplinary nature of palliative care consultation services, and accommodate demand for services.