The Costs of Waiting: Implications of the Timing of Palliative Care Consultation among a Cohort of Decedents at a Comprehensive Cancer Center

J Palliat Med. 2016 Jan;19(1):69-75. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2015.0119. Epub 2015 Nov 30.


Background: Palliative care is recommended along with oncologic care for patients with advanced cancer. However, there are limited data about how the timing of palliative care affects quality and costs.

Objective: Comparison of health care utilization and care quality for patients with cancer who died having received early versus late palliative care.

Design: Analysis of cancer registry, administrative, and billing databases.

Setting/subjects: Patients with cancer who died having received specialty palliative care consultation.

Measurements: Comparing early (more than 90 days prior to death) versus late (less than 90 days prior to death) palliative care, outcome measures included rates of health care utilization and health care costs.

Results: Among 922 decedents, 297 (32.2%) had palliative care referrals, with 93 (10.1%) receiving early referrals and 204 (22.1%) late referrals. Compared to patients receiving late palliative care, early palliative care patients had lower rates of inpatient (33% versus 66%, p < 0.01), ICU (5% versus 20%, p < 0.01), and ED utilization (34% versus 54%, p = 0.04) in the last month of life. Direct costs of inpatient care in the last 6 months of life for patients with early palliative care were lower compared to late palliative care ($19,067 versus $25,754, p < 0.01), while direct outpatient costs were similar ($13,040 versus $11,549, p = 0.85). Early palliative care was predominantly delivered in the outpatient setting (84%) while late palliative care was mostly delivered in the hospital (82%).

Conclusions: Early palliative care is associated with less intensive medical care, improved quality outcomes, and cost savings at the end of life for patients with cancer. Despite recommendations that early palliative care be offered to all patients with metastatic cancer, palliative care services remain underutilized.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / economics*
  • Neoplasms / mortality*
  • Neoplasms / therapy
  • Palliative Care / economics*
  • Palliative Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Quality of Health Care / economics*
  • Quality of Health Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Referral and Consultation / economics*
  • Referral and Consultation / statistics & numerical data
  • Terminal Care / economics*
  • Terminal Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Time Factors
  • United States
  • Young Adult