Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Care of dying patients in hospital

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 03 September 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:583
  1. M Mills,
  2. H T O Davies,
  3. W A Macrae
  1. Greater Glasgow Health Board, Glasgow G1 1PT Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Dundee, Ninewells Hospital and Medical School, Dundee DD1 9SY Department of Anaesthetics, Ninewells Hospital and Medical School, Dundee DD1 9SY
  1. Correspondence to: Miss Mills, 39 Netherblane, Blanefield G60 9JW.
  • Accepted 26 April 1994


Objective : To study the process of care of dying patients in general hospitals.

Design : Non-participant observer (MM) carried out regular periods of continuous comprehensive observation in wards where there were dying patients, recording the quantity and quality of care given. Observations were made in 1983.

Setting : 13 wards (six surgical, six medical, and one specialist unit) in four large teaching hospitals (bed capacity 504-796) in west of Scotland.

Subjects : 50 dying patients (29 female, 21 male) with mean age of 66 (range 40-89); 29 were dying from cancer and 21 from non-malignant disease.

Results : Final period of hospitalisation ranged from 6 hours to 24 weeks. More than half of all patients retained consciousness until shortly before death. Basic interventions to maintain patients' comfort were often not provided: oral hygiene was often poor, thirst remained unquenched, and little assistance was given to encourage eating. Contact between nurses and the dying patients was minimal;20distancing and isolation of patients by most medical and nursing staff were evident; this isolation increased as death approached.

Conclusions : Care of many of the dying patients observed in these hospitals was poor. We need to identify and implement practical steps to facilitate high quality care of the dying. Much can be learned from the hospice movement, but such knowledge and skills must be replicated in all settings.


    • Accepted 26 April 1994
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