‘Palliative sedation’? A retrospective cohort study on the use and labelling of continuously administered sedatives on a palliative care unit

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Background:Sedatives are frequently used towards the end of life. However, there is scarce information when their use is labelled as ‘palliative sedation’.Aim:To assess the use and labelling of ‘continuous administration of sedatives within the last 7 days of life’, based on objective operational criteria, on a palliative care unit.Design:Retrospective cohort study, using medical records. Explorative statistical analysis (SPSS 23).Setting/participants:Patients who died on a palliative care unit from August 2014 to July 2015. Sedatives recorded were benzodiazepines, levomepromazine, haloperidol ≥5 mg/day and propofol.Results:Of the 192 patients, 149 (78%) patients received continuous sedatives within the last week of life. The prevalence of delirium/agitation was significantly higher in patients with continuous sedatives compared to those without continuous sedatives at admission to the unit (35% vs 16%, p = 0.02) and on the day before death (58% vs 40%, p = 0.04). The term ‘(palliative) sedation’ was used in the records for 22 of 149 (15%) patients with continuous sedatives. These patients had significantly higher total daily midazolam doses 2 days before death (median (range), 15.0 (6.0–185.0) mg vs 11.5 (1.0–70.0) mg, p = 0.04) and on the day of death (median (range), 19.5 (7.5–240.0) mg vs 12.5 (2.0–65.0) mg, p = 0.01). The dose range was large in both groups.Conclusion:The prevalence of delirium/agitation was associated with the administration of continuous sedatives. There was no consistent pattern regarding labelling the use of continuous sedatives as ‘(palliative) sedation’. Multicentre mixed-methods research is needed for a better characterization of sedation practices in palliative care.

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