BMJ Support Palliat Care doi:10.1136/bmjspcare-2012-000376
  • Research

Medical specialists’ motivations for referral to specialist palliative care: a qualitative study

  1. Jon Adams3
  1. 1School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
  2. 2Palliative Care, St Vincent's Hospital, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
  3. 3Faculty of Health, University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Emma Kirby, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia Brisbane QLD 4072, Australia; e.kirby{at}


Objectives The decision to refer a patient to palliative care is complex and often highly variable between medical specialists. In this paper, we examine medical specialists’ motivations and triggers underpinning decision-making around referral to palliative care in order to facilitate improvements in referral practices.

Methods We completed semistructured, qualitative interviews with 20 referring medical specialists. Medical specialists were recruited from a range of specialties in a major metropolitan area in Australia. Participants were sampled through having referred at least one patient to the specialist palliative care unit during the previous 12 months. Analysis consisted of the framework approach augmented by NVivo 9 data analysis software. Key themes were identified and tested for rigour through inter-rater reliability and constant comparison.

Results The major motivations/triggers identified were: (a) disease-based (eg, pain management and symptom control); (b) pre-emptive/strategic (eg, anticipation of need, preparatory objective); (c) crisis/parallel (eg, physical and psychosocial issues); and (d) team-based (eg, referral as policy/team strategy).

Conclusions Referral to palliative care is motivated by a range of individual, interpersonal and organisational factors. In order to improve the care and quality of life of patients and family caregivers, further work is needed to develop streamlined practices that are sensitive to physical and psychosocial considerations, and patient/family caregiver desires.

  • Received 27 September 2012.
  • Revision received 5 November 2012.
  • Accepted 19 November 2012.
  • Published Online First 14 December 2012

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