Objectives: To explore differences in the utilization of life support and end-of-life care between patients dying in the medical ICU with cancer compared with those without cancer.
Design: Retrospective review of 403 deaths or hospice transfers in the medical ICU from January 1, 2012, to June 30, 2013.
Setting: Urban tertiary care university hospital.
Patients: Consecutive medical ICU deaths or hospice transfers over an 18-month period.
Measurements and main results: One hundred eighty-two patients (45%) had a diagnosis of active cancer and 221 (55%) did not. Despite similar severity of illness, there were significant differences in the use of life support and end-of-life care. Patients without cancer had longer medical ICU length of stay (median, 5 vs 4 d; p = 0.0495), used mechanical ventilation more often and for longer (83.7% vs 70.9%, p = 0.002; 4 vs 3 d, p = 0.017), and initiated dialysis more frequently (26.7% vs 14.8%; p = 0.0038). Patients without active cancer had family meetings later (median, 3 vs 2 d; p = 0.001), less frequent palliative care consultation (17.6% vs 32.4%; p = 0.0006), and took longer to transition to do not resuscitate or comfort care (median, 4 vs 3 d; p = 0.048).
Conclusions: Among patients dying in the medical ICU, the diagnosis of active cancer influences the intensity of life support utilization and the quality of end-of-life care. Patients with active cancer use less life support and may receive better end-of-life care than similar patients without cancer. These differences are likely due to biases or misunderstandings about the trajectory of advanced nonmalignant disease among patients, families, and perhaps providers.