General Practitioners' Attitudes towards Essential Competencies in End-of-Life Care: A Cross-Sectional Survey

PLoS One. 2017 Feb 1;12(2):e0170168. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0170168. eCollection 2017.


Background: Identifying essential competencies in end-of-life care, as well as general practitioners' (GPs) confidence in these competencies, is essential to guide training and quality improvement efforts in this domain.

Aim: To determine which competencies in end-of-life care are considered important by GPs, to assess GPs' confidence in these competencies in a European context and their reasons to refer terminally ill patients to a specialist.

Design and setting: Cross-sectional postal survey involving a stratified random sample of 2000 GPs in Switzerland in 2014.

Method: Survey development was informed by a previous qualitative exploration of relevant end-of-life GP competencies. Main outcome measures were GPs' assessment of the importance of and confidence in 18 attributes of end-of-life care competencies, and reasons for transferring care of terminally-ill patients to a specialist. GP characteristics associated with main outcome measures were tested using multivariate regression models.

Results: The response rate was 31%. Ninety-nine percent of GPs considered the recognition and treatment of pain as important, 86% felt confident about it. Few GPs felt confident in cultural (16%), spiritual (38%) and legal end-of-life competencies such as responding to patients seeking assisted suicide (35%) although more than half of the respondents regarded these competencies as important. Most frequent reasons to refer terminally ill patients to a specialist were lack of time (30%), better training of specialists (23%) and end-of-life care being incompatible with other duties (19%). In multiple regression analyses, confidence in end-of-life care was positively associated with GPs' age, practice size, home visits and palliative training.

Conclusions: GPs considered non-somatic competencies (such as spiritual, cultural, ethical and legal aspects) nearly as important as pain and symptom control. Yet, few GPs felt confident in these non-somatic competencies. These findings should inform training and quality improvement efforts in this domain, in particular for younger, less experienced GPs.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Disease Management
  • Female
  • General Practitioners / psychology*
  • General Practitioners / standards*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Palliative Care
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Risk Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Switzerland
  • Terminal Care* / ethics
  • Terminal Care* / standards
  • Terminally Ill

Grant support

This work was supported by The Swiss National Science Foundation ( (SNSF: 406740_139341). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.