Non-beneficial treatments in hospital at the end of life: a systematic review on extent of the problem

Int J Qual Health Care. 2016 Sep;28(4):456-69. doi: 10.1093/intqhc/mzw060. Epub 2016 Jun 27.


Purpose: To investigate the extent of objective 'non-beneficial treatments (NBTs)' (too much) anytime in the last 6 months of life in routine hospital care.

Data sources: English language publications in Medline, EMBASE, PubMed, Cochrane library, and the grey literature (January 1995-April 2015).

Study selection: All study types assessing objective dimensions of non-beneficial medical or surgical diagnostic, therapeutic or non-palliative procedures administered to older adults at the end of life (EOL).

Data extraction: A 13-item quality score estimated independently by two authors.

Results of data synthesis: Evidence from 38 studies indicates that on average 33-38% of patients near the EOL received NBTs. Mean prevalence of resuscitation attempts for advanced stage patients was 28% (range 11-90%). Mean death in intensive care unit (ICU) was 42% (range 11-90%); and mean death rate in a hospital ward was 44.5% (range 29-60%). Mean prevalence of active measures including dialysis, radiotherapy, transfusions and life support treatment to terminal patient was 7-77% (mean 30%). Non-beneficial administration of antibiotics, cardiovascular, digestive and endocrine treatments to dying patients occurred in 11-75% (mean 38%). Non-beneficial tests were performed on 33-50% of patients with do-not-resuscitate orders. From meta-analyses, the pooled prevalence of non-beneficial ICU admission was 10% (95% CI 0-33%); for chemotherapy in the last six weeks of life was 33% (95% CI 24-41%).

Conclusion: This review has confirmed widespread use of NBTs at the EOL in acute hospitals. While a certain level of NBT is inevitable, its extent, variation and justification need further scrutiny.

Keywords: end of life; hospital care; inappropriate; non-beneficial; patient safety; systematic review.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Hospitalization*
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Palliative Care*
  • Terminal Care*