Dillon EC, Meehan A, Li J, Liang SY, Lai S, Colocci N, Roth J, Szwerinski NK, Luft H., Support Care Cancer. doi: 10.1007/s00520-020-05492-z. [Epub ahead of print], 2020 May 19
Purpose: Early palliative care (PC) for individuals with advanced cancer improves patient and family outcomes and experience. However, it is unknown when, why, and how in an outpatient setting individuals with stage IV cancer are referred to PC.
Methods: At a large multi-specialty group in the USA with outpatient PC implemented beginning in 2011, clinical records were used to identify adults diagnosed with stage IV cancer after January 1, 2012 and deceased by December 31, 2017 and their PC referrals and hospice use. In-depth interviews were also conducted with 25 members of medical oncology, gynecological oncology, and PC teams and thematically analyzed.
Results: A total of 705 individuals were diagnosed and died between 2012 and 2017: of these, 332 (47%) were referred to PC, with 48.5% referred early (within 60 days of diagnosis). Among referred patients, 79% received hospice care, versus 55% among patients not referred. Oncologists varied dramatically in their rates of referral to PC. Interviews revealed four referral pathways: early referrals, referrals without active anti-cancer treatment, problem-based referrals, and late referrals (when stopping treatment). Participants described PC's benefits as enhancing pain/symptom management, advance care planning, transitions to hospice, end-of-life experiences, a larger team, and more flexible patient care. Challenges reported included variation in oncologist practices, patient fears and misconceptions, and access to PC teams.
Conclusion: We found high rates of use and appreciation of PC. However, interviews revealed that exclusively focusing on rates of referrals may obscure how referrals vary in timing, reason for referral, and usefulness to patients, families, and clinical teams.