Medical Care

End-of-Life Care Often Inadequate

People whose loved ones are dying appear to be significantly dissatisfied with the care the patients are getting, according to a new survey published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

“People are less satisfied with care at the close of life, and I think it’s now urgent for us to start thinking about what interventions we can do to improve care at the end of life given that we are facing a Silver Tsunami,” said Dr. Joan Teno, lead author of the study and professor of health services, policy and practice in the Brown University School of Public Health. The findings come less than a year after an Institute of Medicine report, co-authored by Teno, called for improvements in end-of-life care.

The investigators compared statistics from two surveys – ne conducted in 2000 and the National Health and Aging Trends Study done between 2011 and 2013 — in which more than 1,200 people who had lost close loved ones in one of those periods rated aspects of end-of-life care. In 2000, 56.7 percent of 622 respondents rated care as excellent, but a decade later only 47 percent of 586 people could say the same, according to a news release from Brown.

The study concerned people 65 and older who resided in their community, rather than in nursing homes, at the time of death.

While the overall results suggest that care may not be improving for this population, other findings revealed more specific ways in which care either improved or fell short of patient and family desires. For example, a greater percentage of people (25.2 percent in 2011-13 vs. 15.5 percent in 2000) reported an unmet need for pain management, but health care providers improved in the frequency with which they discussed spiritual or religious concerns with patients and families.

Many quality indicators remained about the same, based on the survey respondents reports. Loved ones, for example, continued to report at about the same rates that decisions were made without enough of their input (13.8 percent in 2011-2013), or against the decedent’s preferences (20.2 percent) when the patient was in intensive care in the last months of life.

The lack of improvement is disappointing, Teno said, because policymakers and health care providers have made many attempts over the last decade to improve end-of-life care.

The most important change has been a vast expansion in the availability of hospice and palliative care services. The new study, and some of Teno’s prior work, suggests that while hospice improves care for the dying, it is frequently misapplied.

“It all relates to how we are using it,” she said. “One of the concerns is that from a population perspective you may have more people receiving hospice but if they are not receiving enough of those services then it becomes really problematic.”