Palliative care needs of advanced cancer patients in the emergency department at the end of life: an observational cohort study

Support Care Cancer. 2020 Mar;28(3):1097-1107. doi: 10.1007/s00520-019-04906-x. Epub 2019 Jun 13.


Purpose: Patients with advanced cancer commonly visit the emergency department (ED) during the last 3 months of life. Identification of these patients and their palliative care needs help initiating appropriate care according to patients' wishes. Our objective was to provide insight into ED visits of advanced cancer patients at the end of life.

Methods: Adult palliative patients with solid tumours who died < 3 months after their ED visit were included (2011-2014). Patients, ED visits, and follow-up were described. Factors associated with approaching death were assessed using Cox proportional hazards models.

Results: Four hundred twenty patients were included, 54.5% was male, median age 63 years. A total of 54.6% was on systemic anti-cancer treatments and 10.5% received home care ≥ 1 per day. ED visits were initiated by patients and family in 34.0% and 51.9% occurred during out-of-office hours. Dyspnoea (21.0%) or pain (18.6%) were most reported symptoms. Before the ED visit, limitations on life-sustaining treatments were discussed in 33.8%, during or after the ED visit in 70.7%. Median stay at the ED was 3:29 h (range 00:12-18:01 h), and 319 (76.0%) were hospitalized. Median survival was 18 days (IQ range 7-41). One hundred four (24.8%) died within 7 days after the ED visit, of which 71.2% in-hospital. Factors associated with approaching death were lung cancer, neurologic deterioration, dyspnoea, hypercalcemia, and jaundice.

Conclusion: ED visits of advanced cancer patients often lead to hospitalization and in-hospital deaths. Timely recognition of patients with limited life expectancies and urgent palliative care needs, and awareness among ED staff of the potential of ED-initiated palliative care may improve the end-of-life trajectory of these patients.

Keywords: Emergency department; Oncology; Palliative care; Terminal care.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cohort Studies
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Needs Assessment
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Palliative Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Terminal Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Young Adult