What's in a name? A qualitative exploration of what is understood by "palliative care" in the emergency department

Palliat Med. 2015 Apr;29(4):293-301. doi: 10.1177/0269216314560801. Epub 2015 Jan 29.


Background: The understanding of what palliative care is, and which patients may benefit from palliative care, has important implications for optimal patient care in all areas of health provision.

Aim: To explore the understanding of palliative care by healthcare professionals caring for patients with advanced cancer attending emergency departments.

Design: Qualitative study, with two phases: the first, a series of focus groups with healthcare professionals from various disciplines and settings caring for patients with advanced cancer presenting to emergency departments; the second, semi-structured telephone interviews with emergency healthcare professionals across Australian States and Territories, including outside metropolitan centers. The data were audio-recorded and transcribed, with analysis undertaken using a qualitative thematic analysis.

Setting/participants: Saturation of themes was reached after 8 focus groups (22 emergency nurses, 21 emergency physicians, 6 oncologists, 6 hospital palliative care clinicians, and 28 community palliative care clinicians) and 11 telephone interviews (8 emergency physicians and 3 emergency nurses), a total of 94 participants.

Results: The overarching theme was that healthcare professionals held contradictory understandings of palliative care and its application in the emergency department; subthemes highlighted these inconsistencies when the term "palliative" is used, in understandings of and engagement with palliative care services and in perceptions about the practical utility of palliative care.

Conclusion: There are entrenched contradictions and tensions surrounding the term "palliative care"; confronting these is likely to require more than re-branding, and will promote better care for this vulnerable patient group in the emergency department.

Keywords: Australia; Palliative care; emergency service; focus groups; health personnel; hospital; neoplasms; nomenclature; qualitative research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Australia
  • Comprehension
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / therapy
  • Palliative Care*
  • Professional-Patient Relations
  • Qualitative Research