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Defining the palliative care patient: its challenges and implications for service delivery


Background Within the UK, general practitioners (GPs) are required to maintain a register of palliative patients under their care. The term ‘palliative’ when applied to patients encompasses a highly heterogeneous population with varying meanings amongst health professionals. We explored GPs views of what defines a palliative care patient in the context of identifying clinical service needs.

Methods Audiotaped semi-structured interviews were conducted with GPs to explore how they identify patients requiring inclusion on a palliative care register. Thematic analysis was undertaken and emerging themes identified.

Results Major themes suggested GPs found it difficult to define the palliative care patient. The decision to include a patient on the palliative care register was made as a multidisciplinary team. Patients not identified as ‘palliative’ were often discussed unofficially if care requirements were significant or prognosis uncertain. The needs of patients with non-malignant disease were considered equal to those with cancer but the challenges of identifying such patients greater. More emphasis was placed on intensity of care required than prognosis. Inclusion on a register triggered greater professional input and was considered beneficial to patient care.

Conclusions No definition of the palliative care patient exists in working practice and without one there is a risk that some patients with palliative needs will not receive the necessary support, while others may access valuable resources before time. Achieving health policy targets which require identification of palliative patients will continue to be a challenge until a workable and reliable definition of the term ‘palliative’ is agreed upon.

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