Referral Criteria to Palliative Care for Patients With Heart Failure: A Systematic Review

Circ Heart Fail. 2020 Sep;13(9):e006881. doi: 10.1161/CIRCHEARTFAILURE.120.006881. Epub 2020 Sep 9.


Background: Patients with heart failure have significant symptom burden, care needs, and often a progressive course to end-stage disease. Palliative care referrals may be helpful but it is currently unclear when patients should be referred and by whom. We conducted a systematic review of the literature to examine referral criteria for palliative care among patients with heart failure.

Methods: We searched Ovid, MEDLINE, Ovid Embase, and PubMed databases for articles in the English language from the inception of databases to January 17, 2019 related to palliative care referral in patients with heart failure. Two investigators independently reviewed each citation for inclusion and then extracted the referral criteria. Referral criteria were then categorized thematically.

Results: Of the 1199 citations in our initial search, 102 articles were included in the final sample. We identified 18 categories of referral criteria, including 7 needs-based criteria and 10 disease-based criteria. The most commonly discussed criterion was physical or emotional symptoms (n=51 [50%]), followed by cardiac stage (n=46 [45%]), hospital utilization (n=38 [37%]), prognosis (n=37 [36%]), and advanced cardiac therapies (n=36 [35%]). Under cardiac stage, 31 (30%) articles suggested New York Heart Association functional class ≥III and 12 (12%) recommended New York Heart Association class ≥IV as cutoffs for referral. Prognosis of ≤1 year was mentioned in 21 (21%) articles as a potential trigger; few other criteria had specific cutoffs.

Conclusions: This systematic review highlighted the lack of consensus regarding referral criteria for the involvement of palliative care in patients with heart failure. Further research is needed to identify appropriate and timely triggers for palliative care referral.

Keywords: consensus; heart failure; palliative care; prognosis; referral and consultation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Heart Failure / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Palliative Care*
  • Referral and Consultation*