CareSearch Blog: Palliative Perspectives

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Caring for dying patients in an acute hospital setting, three tips for getting it right

A guest blog post by Maite Uribe, Nurse Practitioner Candidate, Southern Adelaide Palliative Care Service

  • 11 October 2018
  • Author: Guest
  • Number of views: 4533
Caring for dying patients in an acute hospital setting, three tips for getting it right

Acute hospitals are perfect for emergencies, surgeries, fixing, curing and treating patients, making them well again and sending them home. When it comes to dying in an acute hospital, sometimes we need some help and guidance to know how to care for these vulnerable patients and what is needed at this point of life. Providing care and dignity are basic human values and should be given to patients regardless of the situation.

Recognising a patient is in their last days of life can be difficult and often uneasy, especially when discussing with the patient and their loved ones. In 2017, there were 1109 deaths within my local health network. A quarter (277) of these patients died in the hospice setting, leaving 75% (832) dying in an acute setting, with a non-specialist palliative care team looking after them. Whilst it’s possible to count the number of deaths, it’s not possible to ascertain from those numbers the quality of the care they received leading up to death.  People facing the last days of their life have specific care needs, here are three tips to improving the quality of care patients and their loved ones receive.

  1. Recognise when the patient is dying

Sometimes recognising a patient is dying can be quite unpredictable, but often we can anticipate the deterioration. Some of the clinical signs can be subtle and fluctuating and our impressions are often based more on ‘gut feelings’ than clear evidence. In a cancer setting there are several studies describing how health care professionals recognise deterioration and impending death. Figure A shows the clinical signs and symptoms that occur in the last few days of life and allow for a more objective evaluation.

Figure A - clinical signs and symptoms that occur in the last few days of life

Figure A

  1. Communicate with and support the patient and his/her family

Families often report they don’t know what is happening, needing to piece all the snippets of information together. It is important we provide information and communicate clearly with families and caregivers, especially in the last days of life. Offering a time to meet with families to answer questions and provide an update on the patient’s condition is often undervalued by healthcare professionals. Providing printed information to loved ones of what to expect at end of life, with supportive conversation has proven to be helpful in understanding the situation. This allows the family and caregivers to read, in their own time, some of the symptoms their loved one may experience. It often answers questions families have and provide an overview of what to anticipate in the last days of life.

This is also a time to involve the allied health team such as social work and the spiritual care team to provide another layer of support to the patient and their family. If there are specific cultural traditions, it’s crucial to ask how we are able to assist with facilitating these needs.

  1. Document the discussions

It is imperative that conversations regarding patient deterioration and end of life are documented clearly. If the patient has an Advance Care Directive (ACD) it would be important to ensure we are aware of their wishes regarding end of life care and who they have nominated as their Substitute Decision Maker (SDM).

In a busy acute care setting, there are multiple medical teams, nursing and allied health staff that may have involvement in patient care. It’s important to accurately document the discussions that have been had with a clear direction and plan of care for each patient. This allows any member of the multidisciplinary team to clearly understand the current situation.
The dying patient still has medical, nursing, psychosocial and allied health needs.
End of life care is everyone’s business.


Webpages and apps:
CareSearch – Information for – GPs – The Dying Patient - Assessing the Dying Patient

CareSearch – Information for – GPs – The Dying Patient - End of Life Symptoms

palliAGED – Practice Centre - palliAGEDgp app

palliAGED – Practice Centre - palliAGEDnurse app

YouTube video links:
End-of-Life essentials – Dr Tracey Giles –  A Clinical Story

End-of-Life essentials – Professor Imogen Mitchell – Dying in the 21st Century: An ICU perspective

End-of-Life essentials – Professor Imogen Mitchell – Communication: An ICU perspective

Dignity in death – are hospitals failing those needing end of life care?

Journal articles:
Murray S, Kendall M, Boy, K, Sheikh A, 2005, Illness trajectories and palliative care, The BMJ, vol.330, 1007-11
Cox K, Moghadda, N, Almack K, Pollock K, Seymour J, 2011, Is it recorded in the notes? Documentation of end-of-life care and preferred place to die discussions in the final weeks of life, BMC Palliative Care, vol.10, no.18
Lorenz KA, Lynn J, Dy SM, Shugarman LR, Wilkinson A, Mularski RA, et al., 2008, Evidence for improving palliative care at the end of life: a systematic review, Ann Intern Med, vol.148, no.2, 147-59

Hui D, Santos R, Chisholm G, Bansal S, et al., 2014, Clinical signs of impending death in cancer patients, Oncologist, vol. 19, no.6, 681-687

Advance Care Directive (SA):

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Maite Uribe, Nurse Practitioner Candidate, Southern Adelaide Palliative Care Service 


2 comments on article "Caring for dying patients in an acute hospital setting, three tips for getting it right"


17/10/2018 3:51 PM

Nice article, Thanks for sharing this Information

Jean Dumble

27/01/2021 2:30 PM

Thank you for your article. So true but sadly there are not enough hospice beds across any of the states nor are there adequate services in the community to support people to die at home. Not sure how that can be addressed as financial support for these programs are often limited because of funding or staffing

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