Duration of palliative care before death in international routine practice: a systematic review and meta-analysis

BMC Med. 2020 Nov 26;18(1):368. doi: 10.1186/s12916-020-01829-x.


Background: Early provision of palliative care, at least 3-4 months before death, can improve patient quality of life and reduce burdensome treatments and financial costs. However, there is wide variation in the duration of palliative care received before death reported across the research literature. This study aims to determine the duration of time from initiation of palliative care to death for adults receiving palliative care across the international literature.

Methods: We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis that was registered with PROSPERO (CRD42018094718). Six databases were searched for articles published between Jan 1, 2013, and Dec 31, 2018: MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, Global Health, Web of Science and The Cochrane Library, as well undertaking citation list searches. Following PRISMA guidelines, articles were screened using inclusion (any study design reporting duration from initiation to death in adults palliative care services) and exclusion (paediatric/non-English language studies, trials influencing the timing of palliative care) criteria. Quality appraisal was completed using Hawker's criteria and the main outcome was the duration of palliative care (median/mean days from initiation to death).

Results: One hundred sixty-nine studies from 23 countries were included, involving 11,996,479 patients. Prior to death, the median duration from initiation of palliative care to death was 18.9 days (IQR 0.1), weighted by the number of participants. Significant differences between duration were found by disease type (15 days for cancer vs 6 days for non-cancer conditions), service type (19 days for specialist palliative care unit, 20 days for community/home care, and 6 days for general hospital ward) and development index of countries (18.91 days for very high development vs 34 days for all other levels of development). Forty-three per cent of studies were rated as 'good' quality. Limitations include a preponderance of data from high-income countries, with unclear implications for low- and middle-income countries.

Conclusions: Duration of palliative care is much shorter than the 3-4 months of input by a multidisciplinary team necessary in order for the full benefits of palliative care to be realised. Furthermore, the findings highlight inequity in access across patient, service and country characteristics. We welcome more consistent terminology and methodology in the assessment of duration of palliative care from all countries, alongside increased reporting from less-developed settings, to inform benchmarking, service evaluation and quality improvement.

Keywords: Duration of care; Health services accessibility; Hospice care; Palliative care; Systematic review.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Death*
  • Health Services Accessibility / standards*
  • Humans
  • Palliative Care / methods*
  • Quality of Life / psychology*