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Exploring the transition from curative care to palliative care: a systematic review of the literature
  1. Clare Gardiner1,
  2. Christine Ingleton1,
  3. Merryn Gott2 and
  4. Tony Ryan1
  1. 1School of Nursing and Midwifery, The University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
  2. 2School of Nursing, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to Dr Clare Gardiner, School of Nursing and Midwifery, The University of Sheffield, Sykes House, Little Common Lane, Sheffield S11 9NE, UK; c.gardiner{at}


Background UK policy guidance on treatment and care towards the end of life identifies a need to better recognise patients who are likely to be in the last 12 months of life. Health and social care professionals have a key role in initiating and managing a patient's transition from ‘curative care’ to palliative care. The aim of this paper is to provide a systematic review of evidence relating to the transition from curative care to palliative care within UK settings.

Method Four electronic databases were searched for studies published between 1975 and March 2010. Inclusion criteria were all UK studies relating to the transition from curative care to palliative care in adults over the age of 18. Selected studies were independently reviewed, data were extracted, quality was assessed and data were synthesised using a descriptive thematic approach.

Results Of the 1464 articles initially identified, 12 papers met the criteria for inclusion. Four themes emerged from the literature: (1) patient and carer experiences of transitions; (2) recognition and identification of the transition phase; (3) optimising and improving transitions; and (4) defining and conceptualising transitions.

Conclusions The literature suggests that little is known about the potentially complex transition to palliative care. Evidence suggests that continuity of care and multidisciplinary collaboration are crucial in order to improve the experience of patients making the transition. An important role is outlined for generalist providers of palliative care. Incorporating palliative care earlier in the disease trajectory and implementing a phased transition appear key components of optimum care.

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Recent UK policy guidance on treatment and care towards the end of life states that patients who are approaching the end of their life need high-quality treatment and care that support them to live as well as possible until they die. A key recommendation is that death should become an explicit discussion point when patients are likely to die within 12 months.1 The End of Life Care Strategy for England also identifies a need to better recognise patients who are likely to be in the final 12 months of life, and identifies a key role for health and social care professionals in helping patients to come to terms with the transition from ‘curative care’ (with a focus on cure or chronic disease management) to end of life or palliative care.2 While these policy initiatives identify a need to improve the transition from curative care to palliative care, there are currently no UK guidelines which specifically address this issue or provide guidance for the optimal management of this transition.

Facilitating a transition to palliative care remains a key clinical challenge, however little is known about this potentially complicated period.3 The transition to palliative care can be a confusing and traumatic time for patients and their families, and the transition may trigger feelings of helplessness and abandonment.4 For some the transition combines disruption in established healthcare services with uncertainty regarding the future. A Healthcare Commission Report in 2007 reported that often the decision to move from “curing to caring”' was not well communicated, leading to needless interventions that reduced patients' quality of life.5 While traditionally a sharp transition point has signalled the beginning of palliative care, more recent therapeutic models have described an approach incorporating gradual transitions, emphasising palliative input and quality of life considerations during the active phase.6 A phased transition or simultaneous care approach recognises that treatment goals evolve, and that concurrent active and palliative care may be most appropriate.7 A phased transition may be particularly relevant for patients with non-cancer conditions, where the trajectory of decline is both unpredictable and highly variable.8

Significant barriers have been identified which contribute to difficulties managing the transition to palliative care. A lack of certainty regarding when palliative care should begin can lead to difficulties in identifying when it is best to discuss palliative care with a patient.9 The End of Life Care Strategy also acknowledges that definitions of the beginning of palliative care vary considerably according to individual patient and professional perspectives, and this has implications for timing the transition.2 A scoping review by Marsella3 identified three key elements which complicate the transition to palliative care. First, the nature of the transition and what it means to patients varies. Second, transitions can be difficult because of a lack of time to appropriately prepare patients and families. Lastly, a lack of information regarding the goals of palliative care can lead to confusion and complications.3 Schofield et al10 undertook a literature review as the basis for outlining steps for facilitating the transition to palliative care. While these steps provide useful recommendations, the authors acknowledge a paucity of research in the area and fail to address the impact of variations in healthcare systems and resources in cross-national literature. In addition, other authors have identified problems with these guidelines and recommend further clarifications and reflections around this difficult transition.11

Evidence also suggests a lack of concordance with respect to triggers indicating the appropriateness of a transition to palliative care. While policy guidelines advocate the use of the ‘12-months question’ (‘Would you be surprised if this patient were to die in the next 12 months?’) as an indicator that patients may require palliative care input, recent evidence suggests this question may not be appropriate for patients with non-cancer diagnoses.12 The Gold Standards Framework (GSF) suggests the use of a prognostic indicator guide to identify patients predicted to be in the final 6–12 months of life who might be in need of palliative care.13 While in general the GSF has been well received, implementation is variable and the direct impact on patients and carers is not known.14 In addition, the GSF was developed for primary care, and while it has now been implemented in care homes, a parallel framework for use in secondary care has not yet been developed or validated.

The concept of transition within palliative care is ill defined, and there is no accepted definition in this context. For the purposes of this review, transition is defined as a passage or movement from one state to another. This is in keeping with dictionary definitions and is intended to offer a wide and inclusive definition of the term. Current UK policy fails to offer guidance or recommendations for the optimisation of the transition, despite highlighting a need to better recognise and manage the changing goals of care. This paper aims to explore the evidence relating to transitions to palliative care within a UK context through a systematic review of the literature. In doing so it seeks to add to the limited body of research surrounding the transition from curative care to palliative care.


Incorporating qualitative and quantitative research into a systematic review presents certain challenges. However, the explanatory power of qualitative evidence, and the importance of drawing on a range of evidence to answer complex problems is now acknowledged.15 Palliative care poses its own specific challenges to systematic review methods, the research base is relatively limited and the complexity of methodological and ethical issues results in an evidence base largely unsuitable for traditional forms of review and synthesis. Therefore, a systematic review of qualitative and quantitative literature was undertaken to explore evidence relating to transitions to palliative care in the UK. The review was undertaken in the following five stages: (1) search strategy; (2) inclusion criteria; (3) assessment of relevance; (4) data extraction and appraisal; and (5) data synthesis using a descriptive thematic model.

Search strategy

The aim of the search was to identify a comprehensive list of published papers which met predefined inclusion criteria. MeSH headings and keywords were identified and relevant databases were selected and searched in consultation with a healthcare information management specialist based at the School of Health and Related Research at The University of Sheffield. The databases MEDLINE, EMBASE, CDSR and NHSEED were searched for literature published between 1975 and March 2010. The following journals were hand searched for relevant articles: Palliative Medicine, Journal of Palliative Care, Supportive Care in Cancer and Journal of Advanced Nursing. Relevant references from bibliographies and citation indices were followed up. Grey literature searches were conducted in the above databases, through consultation with expert colleagues from a wider study steering group (n=10), and using internet search engines.

Inclusion criteria

Inclusion criteria were developed by consensus within the research team. Literature had to refer to the transition from active or curative care, to care incorporating a palliative approach. Literature also had to refer to an adult population (over the age of 18 years) and be UK based (since variations in healthcare systems and resourcing worldwide mean that the relevance of international papers to the UK is likely to be limited). All types of published literature were eligible for inclusion, including grey literature. Databases were searched using MeSH headings (palliative care, terminal care, hospice care) and keywords (supportive care, end of life care, transition, continuity). Appropriate wildcards were inserted to search for word ending truncations where necessary. For keyword combinations see appendix A.

Assessment of relevance

Study selection was conducted in a systematic sifting process over three stages: title, abstract and full text. Details of the study identification and selection process are shown in the PRISMA flowchart in figure 1. At each stage studies that definitely did not meet the inclusion criteria were rejected. Each paper was independently assessed by CG and one of the other authors (CI, MG or TR); in cases where there was disagreement between researchers, consensus was reached by discussion.

Figure 1

Flow chart showing literature selection.

Data extraction, appraisal and synthesis

As it was anticipated that a range of papers using different research methods would be obtained, the review was conducted using a descriptive thematic method for systematically reviewing and synthesising research from different paradigms. Thematic analysis offers several advantages: it allows clear identification of prominent themes, and organised and structured ways of dealing with the literature under these themes. It is a flexible approach, allowing considerable latitude to reviewers.16 The thematic approach was data driven and all data relating to transitions from curative care to palliative care were extracted from papers. A checklist adapted from Hawker et al17 was used as the basis for extraction and appraisal. The checklist varied by type of empirical study and aimed to extract data on: abstract and title; introduction and aims; methods and data; sampling; data analysis; bias; results; transferability or generalisability; implications and usefulness.17 The checklist had been piloted on a sample of four papers (CG and MG). Double data extraction was performed independently on all included studies by two authors.

Quality assessment was calculated according to a range of quality indicators of rigour,15 which varied by study type. This method of data appraisal was selected so that all included studies could be appraised according to comparative criteria, and comparisons could be drawn across study types. A score was calculated for each paper based on an individual score for each item on the checklist. Scores ranged from 9 (very poor) to 36 (good) and indicate the methodological rigour for each paper. As each paper was assessed by two researchers, a mean score for each paper was calculated. Owing to the diverse nature of the included studies, statistical synthesis or analysis of study findings was not appropriate. Quality assessment for non-empirical papers was undertaken according to the JBI-NOTARI tool for assessment of expert opinion. This tool does not generate a score for methodological rigour and while findings from non-empirical papers must be considered with caution, expert opinion papers are included in this review in order to minimise exclusion of relevant context. Descriptive thematic synthesis of the included studies was undertaken and was driven by themes identified in the data, rather than by theoretical interrogation of the literature.


Of 1464 citations initially identified, 12 articles (relating to 11 studies) met the inclusion criteria. Articles that were excluded (n=1452) were not relevant to the research aim or were not UK papers (figure 1). One paper included both UK and European data and was included.18 Eight of the included articles were qualitative studies of patients, carers or health professionals.10 18,,24 One study was a mixed methods comparative cohort study,25 one a case study report,26 one a critical discourse analysis27 and one a non-empirical discussion piece.28 Transitions to palliative care were the main focus in only two of the included papers,18 29 while the remainder referred to transitions only as a minor theme or as a component of the discussion. The majority of empirical papers involved patients with cancer diagnoses, five papers related to cancer alone, and four papers related to both cancer and non-cancer conditions. One study did not provide details of patient diagnoses, and two studies were non-empirical. Most papers scored satisfactorily on assessment of methodological rigour, with no paper scoring less than 28 out of a maximum 36. As one paper could not be scored since it was a non-empirical expert opinion piece,28 findings from this paper should be considered with caution. Details of the 12 papers and assessment scores are provided in table 1.

Table 1

Details of included papers

The results of the review are presented in terms of a summary and evaluation of the literature in relation to the research aim. The thematic synthesis of evidence led to the emergence of four main themes: (1) patient and carer experiences of transitions; (2) recognition and identification of the transition phase, and criteria for making transitions; (3) optimising and improving transitions; and (4) defining and conceptualising transitions.

Patient and carer experiences of transitions

Of the papers included in the review, nine provided evidence or discussion of patient and carer experiences of transitions. The overwhelming consensus was of fear and uncertainty when making the transition to palliative care. Larkin et al18 29 reported how cancer patients described a variety of emotional responses reflecting fears and losses. Patients found transitions confusing due to mixed messages, poor communication and uncertainty. They described having limited knowledge about the purpose and timing of transitions, uncertainty about who instigated the transition, limited involvement in decision-making and, once transferred to palliative care services, a sense of waiting for something to happen. Patients also reported that hospitals can provide unrealistic information about the level of service available for patients upon transitioning to palliative care.18 29 This finding resonated with health professionals who reported patient expectations may be unrealistic regarding care that can be delivered.19

Patient concerns were also identified in a qualitative study of lung cancer patients who reported they felt particularly unsafe in periods between curative treatment and follow-up appointments. They also felt ill-prepared for discharge from curative care, and detected inadequacies in interprofessional communication.20 Communication was also highlighted as an important issue in a qualitative interview study of patients receiving specialist palliative care.21 Patients in this study described uncertainties about the extent and nature of interprofessional and intraprofessional communication, and described having to relay information themselves between different professionals involved in their transitioning care. The importance of continuing care was frequently apparent in the literature. Patients and carers described continuity of care as a key component for improving the experience of transitions to palliative care.19 21 22 Continuity appears critical to satisfaction with care and services, however it is clear that complexities may occur and continuity may be disrupted when many agencies are involved in providing care for an individual.19 While the majority of papers focused on cancer patients, a study by Murray et al23 compared the needs of cancer and heart failure patients in the last year of life. They identified that cancer patients reported heightened distress at particular transition points, including after curative treatment ceases. However, psychological and social decline in heart failure patients mirrored physical decline rather than being a reaction to particular transitions.23

Recognition and identification of transition phase

Recognition of the palliative transition phase by health and social care professionals was identified as an important factor for facilitating optimum care.18 22 25 O'Leary et al25 reported that early recognition of the palliative transition point was key to ensuring end of life issues were addressed. In a study by Bestall et al,22 primary care professionals described how late recognition of palliative care need and referrals at a late stage could have a negative impact on patients, and their relatives during bereavement. However, it was acknowledged that a clear-cut transition to a palliative care approach was rare.22 Particular challenges exist when identifying the transition in non-cancer conditions such as heart failure, where the episodic nature of the condition can lead to a delayed recognition of the palliative transition.25

Two papers discussed transitions in relation to critical care settings27 28 and discussed the difficulties of integrating palliative care into critical care. The papers highlight that a transition should not emphasise a dichotomy between cure and palliative care. Within the critical care setting, patients can deteriorate very quickly and the transition from curative to palliative care may be rapid.27 In addition, transitions to palliative care within critical care are often discussed within the context of a transition in physical location, thus defining a very definite transition point. It is acknowledged that dying in critical care may infringe dignity, and a timely recognition and implementation of a palliative care transition is essential for maintaining dignity.28

Four papers made suggestions for criteria to identify the transition to palliative care. O'Leary et al25 listed factors defining the palliative transition point in heart failure including: deterioration despite optimum support; increasing fatigue or functional dependence; low ejection fraction; recurring hospitalisations; emotional distress; carer fatigue; and patient request. Bestall et al22 explored reasons for referral to specialist palliative care for both cancer and non-cancer conditions and highlight a lack of standardised criteria in the UK to determine when a referral should be triggered. Referral criteria identified in this study included complex symptoms, problems with medication side effects, complex social or practical issues, carer burnout and emotional distress. Health professionals discussed the use of referral criteria such as the Leeds eligibility criteria or locally developed guidelines, but most would have liked further guidance about when and how to refer patients to specialist palliative care.22 Cancer patients interviewed in a study by Larkin et al18 described how a rapid deterioration resulting in loss of independence was a primary reason for a transition to palliative care. Some respondents reported that a decision to move to palliative care was based on an evaluation of their potential burden to others rather than personal choice.18 Within the critical care setting, guidelines for the recognition of a palliative transition are rather broader and include the patient “no longer benefitting from critical care”, patient and family request, and the views of family and health professionals.27

Optimising and improving transitions

The majority of studies acknowledged that the transition to palliative care could be improved. As early as 1978 researchers identified the importance of continuing care after the cessation of active treatment.26 However, only four papers made any specific recommendations or developed any guidelines for improving the transition. O'Leary et al25 discussed how the optimum transition should encompass planned and integrated transfer of patient information, the reiteration of patient preferences and the renegotiation of care goals. Recognition of the transition point was identified as key in order that a collaborative care plan could be established, ensuring the most appropriate level of care.25 In addition, improvements to services such as respite and out of hours care were also identified as a requirement for optimum transitions.19 Kendall et al24 developed recommendations for the care of cancer patients in primary care after discussion with patient groups. Patients and carers outlined an important and unique role for primary care staff throughout the cancer trajectory. Continuity of care and an individualised approach were considered crucial to driving patient centred care forwards. Recommendations given for managing the recurrence of cancer and the last weeks included letting patients express their concerns, helping with social and practical issues, respecting patients' values and choices and supporting carers, frequently reviewing and coordinating care and being flexible and responsive.24 Continuity of care was also highlighted as a crucial factor by patients and staff in a study by Patrick et al.19 Continuity appeared critical to overall satisfaction and was particularly important during the transition when many agencies were involved in an individual package of care.19 Researchers in critical care also identified individualised assessment as important, and again highlighted a need for comprehensive collaboration.28 While it is acknowledged that transitions in critical care may be very different to transitions in other care settings, many of the care goals and recommendations are similar.

Defining and conceptualising transitions

Defining the concept of a transition to palliative care remains a challenge. In healthcare, transitions may include changes in the place of care, the care giver or the goals of care. However, transition in the palliative care literature goes further than just change in place or care giver, it also relates to the personal meaning of life, life/role changes, perceptions of end of treatment and likelihood of death. Understanding the concept of this transition is necessary for facilitating end of life care.25 A study by Larkin et al18 explored the experiences and meaning of transition for a group of palliative care patients. While they reported that the successful merging of the curative–palliative interface was beneficial for patients, they suggested the concept of transition warrants further investigation. In particular, they raised concerns that transition concepts fail to capture the palliative care experience fully.18 Transition literature often describes overtly positive outcomes such as resilience, reconstruction, coherence, life purpose, sense of self, transcendence and transformation. However, interview data from patients do not always fit with these descriptions.18 20 23 Transience is suggested as an alternative concept and is further explored in a second study. Transience depicts a more fragile emotional state and is proposed as a more meaningful concept for palliative care when compared to current conceptualisations of transition as a process towards resolution. It is acknowledged that transience remains an emerging concept, and further conceptual development is required.29


Recent UK policy has stressed the importance of managing and facilitating the transition from curative care to palliative care.1 2 This review of the literature suggests that within a UK context, little is known about this potentially complex transition, and literature relating to the optimisation of the transition is sparse. Shortcomings in the literature mean we are unable to provide strong empirical evidence to support practice and policy recommendations. Only two of the included papers had a primary focus on transitions to palliative care.18 29 There were no randomised controlled trials or intervention studies. The majority of papers were qualitative studies with three of the papers descriptive or discursive pieces. Due to the diverse nature of selected articles, traditional synthesis methods were not appropriate.

Despite these limitations this review identifies issues of significant importance which warrant further research and discussion. It is clear that the transition to palliative care can be a confusing and distressing time for patients and their families. The experience of the transition can leave patients and their families feeling abandoned, and lacking a clear understanding of their future care and treatment options.18,,20 24 The findings from this review resonate with research from outside the UK citing challenges surrounding the nature of the transition from the patient perspective.3 Facilitating a sensitive transition is therefore imperative for improving the experiences of patients and their families at this difficult time.

Evidence suggests that continuity of care is crucial to achieving a sensitive and well-managed transition.19 21 22 A particular issue with the transition to palliative care is that traditionally it has been defined in terms of a very sharp transition point accompanied by a multitude of changes including physical location, care providers and care goals. Achieving continuity of care throughout these changes is a key challenge which must be overcome before the patient experience of the transition to palliative care can be optimised. An emphasis of UK strategies is on improving palliative care delivered by generalist providers (primary care teams, hospital staff, social care services).1 30 Generalist providers, often with longstanding relationships with patients, are well placed to provide high quality palliative care, while retaining continuity of care. While a proportion of patients will continue to have complex needs requiring the input of specialist palliative care teams, continued support from generalist providers is crucial to ensuring patients do not feel abandoned during this difficult transition.

Managing the transition to palliative care earlier can also affect how, and potentially where, people die. However, what constitutes ‘palliative care’ is not uniformly understood and opinions vary as to who is a ‘palliative care’ patient.30 The current review identified only four papers which include suggested criteria for identifying the transition to palliative care, and none have received formal validation.18 21 25 27 Further indicators have recently been proposed by Boyd and Murray,30 taking into account a review of prognostic models and guidelines. They propose that clinical judgement informed by evidence, rather than more refined prognostic accuracy, is the key to an earlier identification of patients with palliative care need.30 There is a clear requirement for further formal validation of proposed indicators. Internationally developed indicators such as the US National Hospice and Palliative Care Organisation tool should also be considered, however the organisation and resourcing of palliative care services in the USA and elsewhere may define a sharper transition to palliative care accompanied by an immediate cessation of curative care, thus reducing the appropriateness of US models for a UK healthcare system.

Recommendations for optimising or improving the transition to palliative care are similarly sparse, despite recognition that the transition is often experienced poorly by patients and their families. A key challenge to optimising the transition is sensitively managing the often abrupt change in care provider, care location and care goals that has traditionally accompanied a referral to specialist palliative care services. The abruptness of these changes can lead to patients and their families feeling confused and abandoned, and recommendations highlight a need for collaborative working and continuity of care during the transition.19 24 25 Support from specialist palliative care services and close collaborative working between care providers is necessary in order that patients with need for palliative input are identified, while disease modifying treatments continue.24 In order for this to be achieved, the significant barriers that have been identified to clinicians discussing issues relating to end of life care with non-cancer patients will need to be addressed.31 32 None of the recommendations identified in this review have received formal evaluation to date, and further research is required to evaluate recommendations for the transition to palliative care in order to identify models of best practice. In addition, UK policy should prioritise clarification of definitions and terms in order to better recognise and support patients in the transition phase.

Many patients may stand to benefit from better identification, assessment and management of the transition to palliative care. Optimal management may provide patients and their families with opportunities for addressing preferences for care, and could mitigate the uncertainty and helplessness that currently surrounds this transition. Research is required to further explore these issues, particularly in light of evidence which suggests some patients may be reluctant to receive information relating to a poor prognosis or ‘bad news’.33 34 A phased transition incorporating palliative care in parallel with disease modifying treatments appears the most appropriate model for optimising transitions. This model is particularly relevant for patients with non-cancer disease whose conditions may be more slowly progressive or with fluctuating trajectories. Within this phased transition continuity of care and multidisciplinary collaboration are crucial to optimising care. An agreed consensus of definition, and potential refinements to the conceptualisation of the transition may also be necessary in order enhance consistency. Further research is required, taking into account UK policy and guidance, in order to maximise current resources and develop appropriate guidelines and care models for managing the transition from curative care to palliative care.

Appendix A Keyword combinations


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  • Funding The study was funded by the National Institute of Health Research under the SDO programme, grant number 08/1809/233. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Health.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.