Background: The end of life may be a time of high service utilisation for older adults. Transitions between care settings occur frequently, but may produce little improvement in symptom control or quality of life for patients. Ensuring that patients experience co-ordinated care, and moves occur because of individual needs rather than system imperatives, is crucial to patients’ well-being and to containing health-care costs.
Objective: The aim of this study was to understand the experiences, influences and consequences of transitions between settings for older adults at the end of life. Three conditions were the focus of study, chosen to represent differing disease trajectories.
Participants: Thirty patients aged over 75 years, in their last year of life, diagnosed with heart failure, lung cancer and stroke; 118 caregivers of decedents aged 66–98 years, who had died with heart failure, lung cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or selected other cancers; and 43 providers and commissioners of services in primary care, hospital, hospice, social care and ambulance services.
Design and methods: This was a mixed-methods study, composed of four parts: (1) in-depth interviews with older adults; (2) qualitative interviews and structured questionnaire with bereaved carers of older adult decedents; (3) telephone interviews with care commissioners and providers using case scenarios derived from the interviews with carers; and (4) analysis of linked Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) and mortality data relating to hospital admissions for heart failure and lung cancer in England 2001–10.
Results: Transitions between care settings in the last year of life were a common component of end-of-life care across all the data sets that made up this study, and many moves were made shortly before death. Patients’ and carers’ experiences of transitions were of a disjointed system in which organisational processes were prioritised over individual needs. In many cases, the family carer was the co-ordinator and provider of care at home, excluded from participation in institutional care but lacking the information and support to extend their role with confidence. The general practitioner (GP) was a valued, central figure in end-of-life care across settings, though other disciplines were critical of GPs’ expertise and adherence to guidelines. Out-of-hours services and care homes were identified by many as contributors to unnecessary transitions. Good relationships and communication between professionals in different settings and sectors was recognised by families as one of the most important influences on transitions but this was rarely acknowledged by staff.
Conclusions: Development of a shared understanding of professional and carer roles in end-of-life transitions may be one of the most effective ways of improving patients’ experiences. Patients and carers manage many aspects of end-of-life care for themselves. Identifying ways to extend their skills and strengthen their voices, particularly in hospital settings, would be welcomed and may reduce unnecessary end-of-life transitions. Why the experiences of carers appear to have changed little, despite the implementation of a range of relevant policies, is an important question that has not been answered. Recommendations for future research include the relationship between policy interventions and the experiences of end-of-life carers; identification of ways to harmonise understanding of the carers’ role and strengthen their voice, particularly in hospital settings; identification of ways to reduce the influence of interprofessional tensions in end-of-life care; and development of interventions to enhance patients’ experiences across transitions.