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Hospital cancer deaths: late diagnosis and missed opportunity
  1. JM Blaney1,
  2. G Crawford2,
  3. TR Elder3,
  4. G Johnston4 and
  5. AT Gavin1
  1. 1Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, Centre for Public Health, Queen's University Belfast, Belfast, UK
  2. 2North Down & Ards, Bangor Health Centre, Bangor, UK
  3. 3Strategic Lead Palliative Care Reform, South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, The Ulster Hospital, Belfast, UK
  4. 4Health and Social Care R&D Division, Public Health Agency, Belfast, UK
  1. Correspondence to Anna Gavin, Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, Centre for Public Health, Queen's University Belfast, Mulhouse Building, Grosvenor Road, Belfast BT12 6BJ, UK; a.gavin{at}


Objectives To establish factors that influence and contribute to the death of patients with cancer in acute hospitals in Northern Ireland.

Design Retrospective clinical note review.

Setting 16 acute hospitals, covering 5 Health and Social Care Trusts across Northern Ireland.

Participants 793 adult patients with cancer who died in an acute hospital between July and December 2007 identified through the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry. Information was available for 695 (88%).

Results Thee main reasons for acute hospital deaths were uncovered. First, 26.3% of patients were diagnosed with cancer during their last hospital admission. These patients were significantly different from the rest of the sample in being older, not partnered, having more comorbidities and fewer hospital admissions in their last year of life (all p<0.001). Second, patients were very ill with 78.7% admitted as an emergency, requiring medical attention as a result of cancer-related (37.4%) and urgent physical symptoms (33.5%). Third, despite 38.3% of patients specifically requesting discharge to their usual residence, hospice or other hospital, this was not achieved. For 76.3%, this was owing to a deterioration in their medical condition. However for 12.4% there was a lack of a suitable bed, a care package was not in place for 4.9% and 3.0% lacked the required family support. In addition, preferred place of death was only recorded for 41% of patients.

Conclusions Late diagnosis of cancer is a problem which requires further research. Training should be in place to ensure that a patient's preferred place of death is discussed, recorded and made part of routine end of life care. To achieve this, all medical staff should know when a patient is dying. Further research is required to establish what enables patients with cancer to die at home.

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  • Competing interests None.

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