Describing the characteristics and healthcare use of high-cost acute care users at the end of life: a pan-Canadian population-based study

BMC Health Serv Res. 2020 Oct 31;20(1):997. doi: 10.1186/s12913-020-05837-8.


Background: A minority of individuals use a large portion of health system resources, incurring considerable costs, especially in acute-care hospitals where a significant proportion of deaths occur. We sought to describe and contrast the characteristics, acute-care use and cost in the last year of life among high users and non-high users who died in hospitals across Canada.

Methods: We conducted a population-based retrospective-cohort study of Canadian adults aged ≥18 who died in hospitals across Canada between fiscal years 2011/12-2014/15. High users were defined as patients within the top 10% of highest cumulative acute-care costs in each fiscal year. Patients were categorized as: persistent high users (high-cost in death year and year prior), non-persistent high users (high-cost in death year only) and non-high users (never high-cost). Discharge abstracts were used to measure characteristics and acute-care use, including number of hospitalizations, admissions to intensive-care-unit (ICU), and alternate-level-of-care (ALC).

Results: We identified 191,310 decedents, among which 6% were persistent high users, 41% were non-persistent high users, and 46% were non-high users. A larger proportion of high users were male, younger, and had multimorbidity than non-high users. In the last year of life, persistent high users had multiple hospitalizations more often than other groups. Twenty-eight percent of persistent high users had ≥2 ICU admissions, compared to 8% of non-persistent high users and only 1% of non-high users. Eleven percent of persistent high users had ≥2 ALC admissions, compared to only 2% of non-persistent high users and < 1% of non-high users. High users received an in-hospital intervention more often than non-high users (36% vs. 19%). Despite representing only 47% of the cohort, persistent and non-persistent high users accounted for 83% of acute-care costs.

Conclusions: High users - persistent and non-persistent - are medically complex and use a disproportionate amount of acute-care resources at the end of life. A greater understanding of the characteristics and circumstances that lead to persistently high use of inpatient services may help inform strategies to prevent hospitalizations and off-set current healthcare costs while improving patient outcomes.

Keywords: Acute care; End of life; High-cost user.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Canada
  • Critical Care* / economics
  • Female
  • Health Care Costs
  • Hospitalization / economics
  • Humans
  • Inpatients
  • Intensive Care Units / economics
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Discharge
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Terminal Care* / economics
  • Young Adult