Barriers to the provision of optimal care to dying patients in hospital: a cross-sectional study of nurses’ perceptions

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Jan Shepherd
Amy Waller
Rob Sanson-Fisher
Katherine Clark
Jean Ball


Nurses, terminal care, acute care, Australia, communication, barriers


Objectives: To examine in a sample of nurses working in acute-care wards, self-reported perceptions of the: 1) patient; family; nurse; doctor; and health system-related barriers to the provision of optimal end-of-life care to people who are dying in hospital; and 2) five barriers which, if removed, would lead to the greatest improvements in hospital-based end-of-life care. Background: Nurses play a central role in caring for dying patients and can offer a unique perspective about the factors that impact the quality of end-of life care delivered in hospitals. Study design and methods: Two hundred and fifteen registered and enrolled nurses from three metropolitan and three rural hospitals across three health services completed a questionnaire-based, cross-sectional study between April 2016 and June 2017. Results: Nurses perceive that doctors continue to treat for too long (79% ranked as a large barrier); families have unrealistic expectations about a patient’s prognosis (73%); junior doctors are unwilling to alter the decision of senior doctors (67%); doctors do not adequately explain the dying process (66%); and doctors have inadequate training in end-of-life care (66%). Nurses indicated that doctors reducing the length of active treatment and families having a more realistic expectation about life-expectancy would lead to the greatest improvement in end-oflife care in hospitals. Discussion: In this study of nurses working in a wide range of acute care settings across rural and metropolitan locations, substantial barriers to the provision of high-quality end-of-life care were perceived across all facets of healthcare provision. Important barriers included the continuation of potentially futile treatment, inadequacy of symptom control, and poor communication between doctors, patients and their families. Conclusion: Nurses perceive a range of patient; family; provider; and health system-related challenges to the provision of optimal end-of-life care in hospital. Findings highlight potential areas for improvement as part of a coordinated approach to optimising the provision of end-of-life care in hospitals. Future goals should include larger-scale, longitudinal studies across various states and territories to inform the development of interventions that can help to address the identified gaps in service provision. Implications for research, policy, and practice: This study has highlighted the need to involve all stakeholders when designing interventions to improve end-of-life care. Nurses can provide valuable insight into the factors that can make the greatest impact in improving care provision. It suggests that the provision of high-quality end-of life care in hospitals is complex, and that there is substantial overlap between items nurses perceive to be barriers in each of the five domains of care provision. To achieve sustainable improvement in the quality of end-of-life care provided in hospitals, a multi-factorial, and collegial, approach to designing interventions will be needed.
What is already known about the topic?

  • End-of-life care is increasingly being provided in hospital settings.

  • Nurses are an important source of information and support for dying patients and their families.

  • Few studies have explored nurses’ perceptions of the barriers to the provision of high-quality end-of life care across all domains of healthcare provision.

What this paper adds:

  • Important barriers include continuation of potentially futile treatment, adequacy of symptom control, and poor communication between doctors, patients, and their families.

  • Findings can support the design of more effective intervention strategies to mitigate identified barriers and achieve improvements in the quality of end-of-life care delivered in hospital.

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