Communication about palliative care: A phenomenological study exploring patient views and responses to its discussion

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Abstract

Background:

Communication about palliative care is a complex task frequently delayed until otherwise unavoidable. There is a need for discussion of palliative care to be viewed as a distinct communication task that is guided by empirical data. However, little is known of patient views and responses to these encounters.

Aim:

To explore patient views surrounding communication about palliative care and their responses to its discussion.

Design:

Cross-sectional, prospective, exploratory qualitative design, involving narrative-style interviews and underpinned by an interpretative phenomenological framework.

Setting/participants:

Purposively sampled, English-speaking, adult patients with advanced cancer (n = 30) recruited from cancer services at a tertiary metropolitan hospital in Melbourne, Australia.

Results:

Three major themes evolved. (1) Death as unspeakable: death was expressed using only implicit, ambiguous or technical terms and perceived to be outside the parameters of medical interactions. (2) Palliative care as a euphemism for death: the term ‘palliative care’ was perceived to be used by health professionals as a tool to talk about dying and understood by patients as a euphemism for death. (3) Palliative care as unspeakable: ‘palliative care’ was personified by patients to mean not just death, but my death, in turn, also becoming unspeakable.

Conclusion:

This study provides important new patient insights and responses to the discussion of palliative care. Results demonstrate that the task of discussing palliative care remains complex, difficult and limited by our language. Greater consistency, sensitivity and sophistication are required when talking about palliative care to patients who may benefit from this care.

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