Avoidable and unavoidable visits to the emergency department among patients with advanced cancer receiving outpatient palliative care

J Pain Symptom Manage. 2015 Mar;49(3):497-504. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2014.07.007. Epub 2014 Aug 15.


Context: Admissions to the emergency department (ED) can be distressing to patients with advanced cancer receiving palliative care. There is limited research about the clinical characteristics of these patients and whether these ED visits can be categorized as avoidable or unavoidable.

Objectives: To determine the frequency of potentially avoidable ED visits (AvEDs) for patients with advanced cancer receiving outpatient palliative care in a large tertiary cancer center, identify the clinical characteristics of the patients receiving palliative care who visited the ED, and analyze the factors associated with AvEDs and unavoidable ED visits (UnAvEDs).

Methods: We randomly selected 200 advanced cancer patients receiving treatment in the outpatient palliative care clinic of a tertiary cancer center who visited the ED between January 2010 and December 2011. Visits were classified as AvED (if the problem could have been managed in the outpatient clinic or by telephone) or UnAvED.

Results: Forty-six (23%) of 200 ED visits were classified as AvED, and 154 (77%) of 200 ED visits were classified as UnAvED. Pain (71/200, 36%) was the most common chief complaint in both groups. Altered mental status, dyspnea, fever, and bleeding were present in the UnAvED group only. Infection, neurologic events, and cancer-related dyspnea were significantly more frequent in the UnAvED group, whereas constipation and running out of pain medications were significantly more frequent in the AvED group (P < 0.001). In a multivariate analysis, AvED was associated with nonwhite ethnicity (odds ratio [OR] 2.66; 95% CI 1.26, 5.59) and constipation (OR 17.08; 95% CI 3.76, 77.67), whereas UnAvED was associated with ED referral from the outpatient oncology or palliative care clinic (OR 0.24; 95% CI 0.06, 0.88) and the presence of baseline dyspnea (OR 0.46; 95% CI 0.21, 0.99).

Conclusion: Nearly one-fourth of ED visits by patients with advanced cancer receiving palliative care were potentially avoidable. Proactive efforts to improve communication and support between scheduled appointments are needed.

Keywords: Supportive care; advanced cancer; emergency department; palliative care outpatient.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Ambulatory Care / methods
  • Ambulatory Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Outpatients / statistics & numerical data*
  • Palliative Care / methods
  • Palliative Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Tertiary Care Centers / statistics & numerical data*