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Variations in hospital inpatient palliative care service use: a retrospective cohort study


Objective Use of palliative care in hospitals for people at end of life varies. We examined rate and time of in-hospital palliative care use and associated interhospital variations.

Methods We used admissions from all hospitals in New South Wales, Australia, within a 12-month period, for a cohort of adults who died in 73 public acute care hospitals between July 2010 and June 2014. Receiving palliative care and its timing were based on recorded use.

Results Among 90 696 adults who died, 27% received palliative care, and the care was initiated 7.6 days (mean; SD: 3.3 days) before death. Over the 5-year period, the palliative care rate rose by 58%, varying extent across chronic conditions. The duration of palliative care before death declined by 7%. Patient (demographics, morbidities and service use) and hospital factors (size, location and availability of palliative care unit) explained half of the interhospital variation in outcomes: adjusted IQR in rate and duration of palliative care among hospitals were 23%–39% and 5.2–8.7 days, respectively. Hospitals with higher rates often initiated palliative care earlier (correlation: 0.39; p<0.01).

Conclusion Despite an increase over time in the palliative care rate, its initiation was late and of brief duration. Palliative care use was associated with patient and hospital characteristics; however, half of the between hospital variation remained unexplained. The observed suboptimal practices and variability indicate the need for expanded and standardised use of palliative care supported by assessment tools, service enhancement and protocols.

  • palliative care
  • hospitalisation
  • end of life
  • inter-hospital variation

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