Evidence still insufficient that advance care documentation leads to engagement of healthcare professionals in end-of-life discussions: A systematic review

Palliat Med. 2016 Oct;30(9):807-24. doi: 10.1177/0269216316637239. Epub 2016 Mar 7.


Background: Administration of non-beneficial life-sustaining treatments in terminal elderly patients still occurs due to lack of knowledge of patient's wishes or delayed physician-family communications on preference.

Aim: To determine whether advance care documentation encourages healthcare professional's timely engagement in end-of-life discussions.

Design: Systematic review of the English language articles published from January 2000 to April 2015.

Data sources: EMBASE, MEDLINE, EBM REVIEWS, PsycINFO, CINAHL and Cochrane Library and manual searches of reference lists.

Results: A total of 24 eligible articles from 10 countries including 23,914 subjects met the inclusion criteria, mostly using qualitative or mixed methods, with the exception of two cohort studies. The influence of advance care documentation on initiation of end-of-life discussions was predominantly based on perceptions, attitudes, beliefs and personal experience rather than on standard replicable measures of effectiveness in triggering the discussion. While health professionals reported positive perceptions of the use of advance care documentations (18/24 studies), actual evidence of their engagement in end-of-life discussions or confidence gained from accessing previously formulated wishes in advance care documentations was not generally available.

Conclusion: Perceived effectiveness of advance care documentation in encouraging end-of-life discussions appears to be high but is mostly derived from low-level evidence studies. This may indicate a willingness and openness of patients, surrogates and staff to perceive advance directives as an instrument to improve communication, rather than actual evidence of timeliness or effectiveness from suitably designed studies. The assumption that advance care documentations will lead to higher physicians' confidence or engagement in communicating with patients/families could not be objectively demonstrated in this review.

Keywords: Advance care planning; advance directives; communication barriers; end-of-life care; physician–patient relations; prognosis.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Advance Directives*
  • Communication
  • Documentation*
  • Health Personnel
  • Humans
  • Terminal Care*