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Symptom burden in malignant and non-malignant disease on admission to a palliative care unit
  1. David See1,2,
  2. Brian Le1,3,
  3. Alexandra Gorelik2,4 and
  4. Peter Eastman1,3,5
  1. 1 Department of Palliative Care, The Royal Melbourne Hospital, Parkville, Victoria, Australia
  2. 2 Department of Medicine (RMH), University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia
  3. 3 Department of Palliative Care, Peter MacCallum Cancer Center, Parkville, Victoria, Australia
  4. 4 School of Behavioural and Health Sciences, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  5. 5 Department of Palliative Care, Barwon Health, Geelong, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr David See, Department of Palliative Care, The Royal Melbourne Hospital, Parkville, VIC 3095, Australia; davidsee1993{at}


Background There is increasing recognition that patients with non-malignant diseases have comparable physical and psychosocial symptom burden to patients with cancer. There is currently limited data directly comparing symptom burden between these patient groups.

Objective To investigate differences in symptom burden between patients with malignant and non-malignant conditions admitted to a palliative care unit (PCU).

Method A cross-sectional study involving 186 patients admitted to a PCU was undertaken. Patients were dichotomised into malignant or non-malignant disease categories. Symptom burden at admission was assessed using the Symptom Assessment Scale and Palliative Care Problem Severity Score. Group differences in symptoms were analysed using univariate and multivariate approaches.

Results One hundred patients (53.8%) had cancer, with upper gastrointestinal the most common type (18.0%). Among the 86 patients with non-malignant disease, neurological conditions were most prevalent (40.7%). Patients admitted with non-malignant diseases were older, more functionally impaired and more likely to be deteriorating or terminal. A malignant diagnosis was associated with a higher likelihood of clinician-assessed pain, patient-assessed pain, fatigue, psychological/spiritual symptoms and other symptoms. However, when adjusted for confounders, disease category ceased to be a significant predictor of symptom burden. Younger patients experienced worse pain and patients in terminal phase experienced less symptom burden.

Conclusion Symptom burden was similar between patients with malignant and non-malignant disease after adjustment for confounders. Further research is needed to understand the palliative care needs of patients with non-malignant disease.

  • symptoms and symptom management
  • chronic conditions
  • cancer
  • clinical assessment
  • end of life care

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  • Contributors DS, BL and PE planned and conducted the study. DS and AG conducted statistical analysis. DS wrote the manuscript. DS, BL, AG and PE reviewed the manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

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