Importance: The use of palliative care programs and the number of trials assessing their effectiveness have increased.
Objective: To determine the association of palliative care with quality of life (QOL), symptom burden, survival, and other outcomes for people with life-limiting illness and for their caregivers.
Data sources: MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, and Cochrane CENTRAL to July 2016.
Study selection: Randomized clinical trials of palliative care interventions in adults with life-limiting illness.
Data extraction and synthesis: Two reviewers independently extracted data. Narrative synthesis was conducted for all trials. Quality of life, symptom burden, and survival were analyzed using random-effects meta-analysis, with estimates of QOL translated to units of the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy-palliative care scale (FACIT-Pal) instrument (range, 0-184 [worst-best]; minimal clinically important difference [MCID], 9 points); and symptom burden translated to the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS) (range, 0-90 [best-worst]; MCID, 5.7 points).
Main outcomes and measures: Quality of life, symptom burden, survival, mood, advance care planning, site of death, health care satisfaction, resource utilization, and health care expenditures.
Results: Forty-three RCTs provided data on 12 731 patients (mean age, 67 years) and 2479 caregivers. Thirty-five trials used usual care as the control, and 14 took place in the ambulatory setting. In the meta-analysis, palliative care was associated with statistically and clinically significant improvements in patient QOL at the 1- to 3-month follow-up (standardized mean difference, 0.46; 95% CI, 0.08 to 0.83; FACIT-Pal mean difference, 11.36] and symptom burden at the 1- to 3-month follow-up (standardized mean difference, -0.66; 95% CI, -1.25 to -0.07; ESAS mean difference, -10.30). When analyses were limited to trials at low risk of bias (n = 5), the association between palliative care and QOL was attenuated but remained statistically significant (standardized mean difference, 0.20; 95% CI, 0.06 to 0.34; FACIT-Pal mean difference, 4.94), whereas the association with symptom burden was not statistically significant (standardized mean difference, -0.21; 95% CI, -0.42 to 0.00; ESAS mean difference, -3.28). There was no association between palliative care and survival (hazard ratio, 0.90; 95% CI, 0.69 to 1.17). Palliative care was associated consistently with improvements in advance care planning, patient and caregiver satisfaction, and lower health care utilization. Evidence of associations with other outcomes was mixed.
Conclusions and relevance: In this meta-analysis, palliative care interventions were associated with improvements in patient QOL and symptom burden. Findings for caregiver outcomes were inconsistent. However, many associations were no longer significant when limited to trials at low risk of bias, and there was no significant association between palliative care and survival.