Palliative Care for Patients With Dementia: When to Refer?

Jennie Smith

March 11, 2021

Palliative care for people with dementia is increasingly recognized as a way to improve quality of life and provide relief from the myriad physical and psychological symptoms of advancing neurodegenerative disease. But unlike in cancer, relatively few patients with terminal dementia receive referrals to palliative care.

A new literature review has found these referrals to be all over the map among patients with dementia – with many occurring very late in the disease process – and do not reflect any consistent criteria based on patient needs.

For their research, published March 2 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Li Mo, MD, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and colleagues looked at nearly 60 studies dating back to the early 1990s that contained information on referrals to palliative care for patients with dementia. While a palliative care approach can be provided by nonspecialists, all the included studies dealt at least in part with specialist care.

Standardized Criteria Are Lacking

The investigators found advanced or late-stage dementia to be the most common reason cited for referral, with three quarters of the studies recommending palliative care for late-stage or advanced dementia, generally without qualifying what symptoms or needs were present. Patients received palliative care across a range of settings, including nursing homes, hospitals, and their own homes, though many articles did not include information on where patients received care.

A fifth of the articles suggested that medical complications of dementia including falls, pneumonia, and ulcers should trigger referrals to palliative care, while another fifth cited poor prognosis, defined varyingly as having between 2 years and 6 months likely left to live. Poor nutrition status was identified in 10% of studies as meriting referral.

Only 20% of the studies identified patient needs – evidence of psychological distress or functional decline, for example – as criteria for referral, despite these being ubiquitous in dementia. The authors said they were surprised by this finding, which could possibly be explained, they wrote, by "the interest among geriatrician, neurologist, and primary care teams to provide good symptom management," reflecting a de facto palliative care approach. "There is also significant stigma associated with a specialist palliative care referral," the authors noted.

Curiously, the researchers noted, a new diagnosis of dementia in more than a quarter of the studies triggered referral, a finding that possibly reflected delayed diagnoses.

The findings revealed "heterogeneity in the literature in reasons for involving specialist palliative care, which may partly explain the variation in patterns of palliative care referral," Mo and colleagues wrote, stressing that more standardized criteria are urgently needed to bring dementia in line with cancer in terms of providing timely palliative care.

Patients with advancing dementia have little chance to self-report symptoms, meaning that more attention to patient complaints earlier in the disease course, and greater sensitivity to patient distress, are required. By routinely screening symptoms, clinicians could use specific cutoffs "as triggers to initiate automatic timely palliative care referral," the authors concluded, noting that more research was needed before these cutoffs, whether based on symptom intensity or other measures, could be calculated.

Mo and colleagues acknowledged as weaknesses of their study the fact that a third of the articles in the review were based on expert consensus, while others did not distinguish clearly between primary and specialist palliative care.

A Starting Point for Further Discussion

Asked to comment on the findings, Elizabeth Sampson, MD, a palliative care researcher at University College London, praised Mo and colleagues' study as "starting to pull together the strands" of a systematic approach to referrals and access to palliative care in dementia.

"Sometimes you need a paper like this to kick off the discussion to say look, this is where we are," Sampson said, noting that the focus on need-based criteria dovetailed with a "general feeling in the field that we need to really think about needs, and what palliative care needs might be. What the threshold for referral should be we don't know yet. Should it be three unmet needs? Or five? We're still a long way from knowing."

Sampson's group is leading a UK-government funded research effort that aims to develop cost-effective palliative care interventions in dementia, in part through a tool that uses caregiver reports to assess symptom burden and patient needs. The research program "is founded on a needs-based approach, which aims to look at people's individual needs and responding to them in a proactive way," she said.

One of the obstacles to timely palliative care in dementia, Sampson said, is weighing resource allocation against what can be wildly varying prognoses. "Hospices understand when someone has terminal cancer and [is] likely to die within a few weeks, but it's not unheard of for someone in very advanced stages of dementia to live another year," she said. "There are concerns that a rapid increase in people with dementia being moved to palliative care could overwhelm already limited hospice capacity. We would argue that the best approach is to get palliative care out to where people with dementia live, which is usually the care home."

Mo and colleagues' study received funding from the National Institutes of Health, and its authors disclosed no financial conflicts of interest. Sampson's work is supported by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council and National Institute for Health Research. She disclosed no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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