COVID-19 end-of-life care: symptoms and supportive therapy use in an Australian hospital

Intern Med J. 2021 Sep;51(9):1420-1425. doi: 10.1111/imj.15300.


Background: Descriptions of symptoms and medication use at end of life in COVID-19 are limited to small cross-sectional studies, with no Australian longitudinal data.

Aims: To describe end-of-life symptoms and care needs of people dying of COVID-19.

Methods: This retrospective cohort study included consecutive admitted patients who died at a Victorian tertiary referral hospital from 1 January to 30 September directly due to COVID-19. Clinical characteristics, symptoms and use of supportive therapies, including medications and non-pharmacological interventions in the last 3 days of life were extracted.

Results: The cohort comprised 58 patients (median age 87 years, interquartile range (IQR) 81-90) predominantly admitted from home (n = 30), who died after a median of 11 days (IQR 6-28) in the acute medical (n = 31) or aged care (n = 27) wards of the hospital. The median Charlson Comorbidity Score was 7 (IQR 5-8). Breathlessness (n = 42), agitation (n = 36) and pain (n = 33) were the most frequent clinician-reported symptoms in the final 3 days of life, with most requiring opioids (n = 52), midazolam (n = 40), with dose escalation commonly being required. While oxygen therapy was commonly used (n = 47), few (n = 13) required an anti-secretory agent.

Conclusions: This study presents one of the first and largest Australian report of the end of life and symptom experience of people dying of COVID-19. This information should help clinicians to anticipate palliative care needs of these patients, for example, recognising that higher starting doses of opioids and sedatives may help reduce prevalence and severity of breathlessness and agitation near death.

Keywords: COVID-19; death; infectious disease; palliative care; signs and symptoms.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Australia / epidemiology
  • COVID-19*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Hospitals
  • Humans
  • Palliative Care
  • Retrospective Studies
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Terminal Care*