Practice Competent Novice

Caring for a dying patient in hospital

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 17 April 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2174
  1. Katherine E Sleeman, clinical lecturer in palliative medicine1,
  2. Emily Collis, consultant in palliative medicine2
  1. 1King’s College London, Cicely Saunders Institute, Department of Palliative Care Policy and Rehabilitation, London SE5 9PJ, UK
  2. 2Pembridge Palliative Care Centre, Central London Community Healthcare Trust, St Charles’s Hospital, London W10 6DZ, UK
  1. Correspondence to: K E Sleeman katherine.sleeman{at}

Recognising the dying phase shifts focus of care from disease management to the patient’s priorities and symptoms

Key points

  • Junior doctors are often required to care for dying patients

  • Early recognition of dying facilitates meeting patients’ and relatives’ preferences for end of life care

  • Communication is the cornerstone of good end of life care

  • The principles of end of life prescribing are: to stop non-essential drugs; convert essential drugs to the subcutaneous route; and use anticipatory prescribing

Every year, more than half a million people die in the United Kingdom, and over half of these deaths occur in hospital. Junior doctors are often required to care for dying patients,1 and assessment and management of these patients are essential skills.2 3 4

The importance of good end of life care, both for the patient and for their family, is increasingly recognised. However, many people dying in hospital continue to have unmet needs, and, in the UK more than half of complaints referred to the Healthcare Commission (the Care Quality Commission’s predecessor) concerned the care of dying people.5 Acquisition of the basic skills required to care for people who are dying can improve the patient’s and their family’s experience of death, as well as the safety, efficiency, and satisfaction of the junior doctor’s work.

Recognising dying

Doctors are notoriously poor at prognosticating, and recognising that a person is dying is a skill that develops over time. In the patient who is close to death, clinical signs such as reduced consciousness level, respiratory changes (for example, Cheyne-Stokes breathing), and cardiovascular changes (for example, peripheral vasoconstriction) are common. For the patient and his or her family to have time to express their preferences for end of life care, however, recognition of dying must occur earlier.

The last weeks of life for most people are characterised by a progressive physical decline, frailty, lethargy, worsening mobility, reduced oral intake, and little or no response to medical interventions. These changes can be subtle and can first be identified by nursing staff, allied health professionals, or family members. In cancer, which characteristically has a smooth downward trajectory in the last few weeks, death can be easier to predict than in non-cancer diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart failure, which are characterised by relapses and remissions. Similarly, death from frailty or dementia can be difficult to predict because patients can live for a long time with a very poor level of function, making the dying phase difficult to distinguish (fig 1).


Fig 1 Trajectory of malignant versus non-malignant disease process

In the acute hospital setting, where patients are often being intensively managed and reversibility is unclear, it is impossible to predict with complete certainty which patients will not survive an admission. The onus on clinicians is to identify patients in whom dying is a possibility, and make advance care plans, including decisions on treatment escalation, in advance of a potential terminal deterioration. The AMBER care bundle is a tool designed in the UK to facilitate this process by promoting communication, advance care planning, and team working, alongside active treatment.6 7

Assessment of a dying patient

The recognition that a patient is deteriorating irreversibly, and is therefore dying, heralds a shift in the focus of care—away from disease, treatment, and cure, and towards the patient’s needs and priorities. The assessment of a dying patient aims to identify the patient’s current physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs, and to develop strategies to meet them. Assessment of unconscious or non-verbal patients requires close attention to physical signs such as facial expression, movements, and breathing, as well as discussion with the family and nursing team.

Management of a dying patient

Most UK hospitals use the Liverpool care pathway (LCP) (or an equivalent pathway) to guide care for dying patients.8 The LCP is a multidisciplinary template, developed to translate best practice for the care of dying patients from the hospice to the hospital setting. The template does not determine care but provides prompts to guide physical, psychological, social, and spiritual care. Inappropriate interventions such as blood tests and routine observations are stopped, and care is focused on four hourly reviews of physical symptoms, comfort, and dignity.9

The recommendation to start the LCP should be made on the basis of multidisciplinary agreement that there is no reversible cause for the patient’s deterioration and that the patient is likely to be in the last hours or days of life. As the LCP is not a treatment but a framework for good practice, written consent is not required. However, identifying that someone is dying, and changing a plan of care accordingly, should be discussed with the patient where appropriate, and always with the relative or carer. This discussion should signpost that the patient is now entering the dying phase and that the focus of care has shifted to comfort and dignity. Relatives and carers may be reassured to hear that this transition has occurred despite best medical efforts to correct reversible causes of deterioration. They may ask about the prognosis (impossible to know for certain but likely to be only hours to days) and about what happens now. Explain that the patient will continue to be monitored closely by medical and nursing teams and given medication for symptoms as needed. It can be useful to reassure relatives that the team is experienced at monitoring and treating symptoms such as pain in patients who are unconscious.

Care on the LCP will only be as good as the healthcare professionals providing it. The LCP has been suggested as a model of good practice by the Department of Health, the General Medical Council, and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the UK2 4 10 buthas come under fire in recent months, with newspapers accusing hospitals of using the LCP to kill patients.11 It has been incorrectly reported that the LCP requires food and fluids to be withdrawn. In fact, the LCP states that all patients should be supported to eat and drink—for example, by spoon feeding—for as long as possible. However, it is common for patients to have a period at the end of life where reduced consciousness limits their ability to take food and fluids orally. Provision of nutrition and hydration by tube or drip is considered in law as a medical treatment, and whether to provide them should be determined on a case by case basis, by weighing up the benefits (such as potentially improved comfort) with the burdens and risks (such as peripheral oedema and bronchial secretions). Consider the views of the patient and family, including any religious or cultural context, and discuss the benefits, burdens, and risks of clinically assisted nutrition and hydration with them.12 All patients should receive regular mouth care to keep their lips and tongue moist.

Patients being cared for with the LCP should be seen daily by the medical or surgical team. A full multidisciplinary team review should occur if (a) the patient improves; (b) concerns are expressed about the management plan by the patient, a family member, or member of the multidisciplinary team; or (c) it has been 72 hours since the last assessment by the multidisciplinary team. The LCP is not irreversible—if the patient improves, the LCP can be discontinued. Discuss any change in plan with the patient where possible, and always with the relative or carer.4

End of life prescribing

There are three general principles of prescribing at the end of life: stop non-essential drugs; convert essential drugs to the subcutaneous route; and use anticipatory prescribing. Box 1 clarifies how these principles should be followed.

Box 1 The three general principles of prescribing at the end of life

Stop non-essential drugs
  • In general, this means stopping all drugs that are not providing a symptomatic benefit. For some drugs, such as statins and antihypertensives, this is fairly clear. Other medicines, such as antiepileptics, would usually be continued for as long as the patient can manage to take them. Antibiotics are usually stopped but can be continued if it is thought that they are providing symptomatic benefit.

Convert essential drugs to the subcutaneous route
  • Convert essential drugs to the subcutaneous route especially in patients who are having trouble swallowing tablets and in those who might have poor oral absorption or nausea and vomiting. Regular drugs are usually delivered via a syringe driver, a continuous subcutaneous infusion pump that runs over 24 hours. Continuous subcutaneous infusion pumps are ideal at the end of life because the subcutaneous route is relatively non-invasive, doses can be titrated easily, and several drugs can be combined in one pump.

Use anticipatory prescribing
  • Irrespective of current symptoms, all dying patients should have an analgesic, an anxiolytic, an antiemetic, and drugs to reduce bronchial secretions available on the “as needed” side of their drug chart, so that there is no delay responding to a symptom if it occurs.

Physical care

At the end of life, physical care is guided more by patients’ symptoms, such as breathlessness, than by signs, such as respiratory rate or oxygen saturations. However, understanding the cause of symptoms helps guide their treatment, and focused physical examination to elicit relevant signs remains important. The most common physical symptoms at the end of life are pain, breathlessness, agitation, nausea and vomiting, and constipation (box 2).

Box 2 Physical care of dying patients

  • Over a third of dying patients have pain.13 Although often feared, particularly by patients with cancer, pain is also common in non-malignant diseases.13 The VOICES survey, the first national study of bereaved families, reported that only 33% of relatives of patients who died in hospital said that pain had been completely relieved, compared with 60% of patients who died in a hospice.14 Opioids, usually morphine sulphate, are the mainstay of pain relief at the end of life. The LCP documentation includes simple algorithms to guide opioid prescription (fig 2). For more complex pain control, including advice on increasing doses, opioid dose conversions, and opioid use in renal or liver disease, useful resources include the ward pharmacist and hospital palliative care team.


Fig 2 Algorithm for control of pain at the end of life, adapted from the Liverpool care pathway. CSCI=continuous subcutaneous infusion

  • This is a distressing and common symptom reported at the end of life. Opioids have been shown to improve the sensation of breathlessness,15 and the doses used are generally smaller than those used for pain. The exact mechanism by which low dose opioids alleviate breathlessness is unknown but is likely to be distinct from the mechanism by which inappropriately high doses of opioids cause respiratory depression. Studies have shown that opioid titration reduces respiratory rate and the sensation of dyspnoea, without substantial changes in PaO2 or PaCO2.16 A systematic review of benzodiazepines for breathlessness in advanced disease showed a non-significant trend towards beneficial effect.17 Nevertheless, for patients who are breathless and anxious, benzodiazepines can be useful.16

  • Oxygen therapy is of little benefit for the relief of breathlessness at the end of life in patients who are not hypoxic.16 In patients who are hypoxic and breathless, a trial of oxygen therapy (such as 2-4 L/min via nasal cannula) can be given alongside appropriate opioid treatment. Non-drug interventions, such as directing a fan towards the face, can also be useful.

  • Most patients show fluctuant changes in consciousness level towards the end of life, with generally increasing drowsiness. Some patients show signs of physical restlessness and delirium, which, if severe, are called terminal agitation. Terminal agitation might be a symptom of physical, psychological, or existential distress. A diagnosis of terminal agitation requires that reversible conditions have been excluded (table 1). Thereafter, most patients respond to benzodiazepines (for example, midazolam 2.5 mg to 5 mg as required). Occasionally antipsychotics (for example, levomepromazine) or barbiturates (for example, phenobarbital) are needed, but specialist advice should be sought in this circumstance.

Table 1

Reversible causes of agitation at the end of life

View this table:
  • It is a common misconception that drugs such as opioids and sedatives hasten death when given at the end of life and that this practice is justified by the doctrine of double effect. This doctrine states that if doing something morally good has a morally bad side effect, it is ethically justifiable to do it provided that the bad side effect was not the primary intention. However, this doctrine should not be cited with respect to opioids for analgesia at the end of life, as there is no reliable evidence that careful titrated, appropriate doses of opioids or sedatives to alleviate symptoms shorten life.18

Nausea and vomiting
  • These are common features in many advanced diseases. Although vomiting can be tolerated by many patients, relentless nausea is profoundly debilitating. There are many causes of nausea and vomiting at the end of life: physical causes (such as bowel obstruction, constipation), biochemical causes (such as hypercalcaemia), drugs (such as chemotherapy, opioids), and central causes (such as brain tumour). The appropriate antiemetic is chosen on the basis of an understanding of the likely cause (table 2), and also consideration of other symptoms (for example, in a patient who is nauseated from hypercalcaemia and agitated, levomepromazine could be used to treat both symptoms). Occasionally, antiemetics need to be combined, and specialist palliative care advice should be obtained.

Table 2 Choosing an antiemetic at the end of life

View this table:
  • Constipation is common in dying patients because of immobility, poor diet, dehydration, weakness, and some drugs—such as opioids. Assessment of constipation should include the patient’s normal bowel habit, when the patient last opened his or her bowels, what the last bowel movement was like (hard or soft), and any associated symptoms (abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting). In general, constipation is best treated with a combination of a stimulant and a stool softener (for example, senna and docusate sodium). If the patient is unable to take oral laxatives, rectal intervention with suppositories might be appropriate, depending on the balance between benefit and discomfort of the intervention.

Respiratory secretions
  • Patients who are close to death often develop audible respiratory secretions—death rattle—caused by the patient’s inability to clear the throat normally. This is often of more distress to the family than to the patient. Repositioning can help. First line drug treatment is usually an antimuscarinic, such as glycopyrronium or hyoscine butylbromide. An alternative is hyoscine hydrobromide, though this has the disadvantage of crossing the blood-brain barrier, potentially causing delirium and sedation. These drugs all cause a dry mouth, and extra attention should be paid to mouth care.

Social care

The social assessment of a dying patient should focus on family support and identification of carers or dependants. Patients in whom death is not imminent and who are alert enough to converse comfortably can be asked sensitively about their preferred place of death, so that a rapid discharge can be arranged if appropriate. Questions that might be appropriate include, “How do you feel about being in hospital at the moment?” It is essential to pay close attention to patient cues to guide how far a patient wishes to engage with advance care planning.

If prompted by patients—for example, by a worry about their affairs—it might be appropriate to ask if they have made a will, and, if necessary, to facilitate this. The hospital palliative care team can signpost appropriate support, such as specialist social workers.

The insight of the patient’s family, and their wishes or concerns, should be elicited. Family members might have questions and concerns about practical matters after their relative’s death—for example, what will happen to the patient’s body and how to arrange a funeral. The hospital bereavement office can be a useful source of information and help identify local bereavement support. Identification of family members who might be particularly at risk in bereavement—for example, young dependants, and those with young children, other recent bereavements, or mental health issues—can allow pre-emptive social work support. Confidence about who would benefit from the input of a specialist social worker develops over time, and senior advice is likely to be helpful for junior doctors.

Psychological care

In the unconscious dying patient, extreme anxiety can manifest as agitation, and if no reversal is possible (table 1), benzodiazepines are usually effective. In patients who remain conscious, gently exploring their fears and concerns can help to lessen any anxiety. Questions could include, “What’s the worst thing for you at the moment?” and “Is there anything in particular that is worrying you?” Sometimes making an educated guess can be useful. For example, “Many patients fear that as they become less well their pain will increase—is this something that worries you?” You could then give appropriate reassurance that this is not something that we would expect to happen. Patients might voice other fears about the dying process itself and are generally reassured to be told that for most people it is simply a process of gradually becoming more drowsy, taking to bed, and speaking and eating less.

It is not possible to fully understand a patient’s psychological concerns after a single meeting. This happens over time, through ongoing, open, and honest conversations with the patient and family, and discussion with the multidisciplinary team. If a patient’s anxiety or agitation does not improve, the specialist palliative care team can often provide additional psychological support.

Spiritual care

Spirituality becomes very important to many patients at the end of life. Identification of a strong faith can help guide appropriate chaplaincy support and might influence care after death. For many people, however, spirituality encompasses much more than religion. Asking open questions such as, “Where do you find strength?” or “How do you make sense of what is happening?” and “How do you feel about the future?” can be a useful and non-confrontational way of finding out more about a patient’s spirituality. Irrespective of religious faith, hospital chaplaincy teams can provide spiritual support if needed.

End of life communication

Communication is the cornerstone of good end of life care. Junior doctors are understandably often concerned about communicating with dying patients and their relatives, and should develop their communication skills through observation, simulation, practice, feedback, and reflection. Although junior doctors are not expected to break bad news to patients, being present while senior colleagues have these conversations is invaluable experience.

When embarking on a sensitive conversation, start by considering the environment in which the conversation will be held. Is there adequate privacy? Can you be heard? Are you likely to be disturbed? It is useful, too, to try and ensure that a nurse is present for the conversation, to support the patient and provide continuity. Always ascertain how much information the patient wants (“Are you the sort of person who likes all the information?”), and modify your responses accordingly. Start by checking what the patient or relative understands about the situation—this often makes the rest of the conversation much easier. In general, leave time for the conversation (try to give your bleep to a colleague), don’t try to force it according to your agenda, and be sensitive to cues. Ask open questions, particularly about what their worries or concerns are, and don’t be afraid to use the words “death” and “dying” sensitively, because use of ambiguous language may lead to confusion. If a patient asks a difficult question, be prepared to say you don’t know, but ensure you bring back a senior colleague to complete the conversation.

Together with the nursing staff, ensure that the patient’s family have all the practical information that they need—for example, do they need to adhere to visiting hours? can they stay overnight? is there a kitchen they can use? Discuss with relatives how they would like to be informed of a change in the patient’s condition—for example, would they want to be called in the middle of the night?


In patients who are deteriorating from an incurable disease, for whom there is no reversibility, and who are expected to die within days or weeks, cardiopulmonary resuscitation is almost certain to be futile. In this situation, an advance decision not to attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation (DNACPR (“Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation”)) helps to ensure that the patient dies in a peaceful and dignified manner. The DNACPR decision is the responsibility of the medical team but should be discussed with the patient if appropriate and with his or her next of kin.4 It is important to reassure the patient and family that a DNACPR decision applies only to cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and it does not imply that other treatments will be withdrawn or withheld.

When to involve the palliative care team

Almost all acute hospitals now have a specialist palliative care team. The team usually consists of clinical nurse specialists, doctors, social workers, and chaplaincy support. The general medical or surgical team is expected to provide basic end of life care to patients, with support from the specialist palliative care team if there are symptoms that are difficult to control, extreme psychological distress, or a complex social situation (for example, if there are young dependants). Most palliative care teams will see any hospital inpatients according to need, rather than according to diagnosis, and increasingly they see patients who do not have cancer. Most teams can be contacted for telephone advice, one-off assessment, or ongoing support.

A challenge for doctors

All junior doctors will care for dying patients at some point. There is more than one way to die well, but the minimum requirements are recognition of the dying phase, excellent communication, and attention to psychological, social, and spiritual distress in addition to physical symptoms. The shift from cure to palliation can be challenging for doctors at all levels, but is necessary to achieve a dignified and peaceful death for the patient, and consequently reduce family suffering in bereavement.

As Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement, said, “how we die remains in the memory of those who live on.”

Useful resources

  • Map of Medicine guide on end of life care in adults. Contains useful, well referenced, flow diagrams around care of dying patients—

  • Palliative Care Adult Network guidelines. Detailed electronic resource on palliative care generally. Includes an opioid dose calculator and syringe driver drug compatibility resource. iPhone app available—

  • e-Learning for Healthcare modules on end of life care. Over 150 modules on end of life care including advance care planning, assessment, communication skills, and symptom management—


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2174


  • This series aims to help junior doctors in their daily tasks and is based on selected topics from the UK core curriculum for foundation years 1 and 2, the first two years after graduation from medical school.

  • Competing interests: We have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and we have no relevant interests to declare.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • An earlier version of this article was published in Student BMJ (2013;21:f322).