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Unexpected death in palliative care: what to expect when you are not expecting

Hui, David

Current Opinion in Supportive and Palliative Care: December 2015 - Volume 9 - Issue 4 - p 369–374
doi: 10.1097/SPC.0000000000000174
END OF LIFE MANAGEMENT: Edited by Gustavo de Simone

Purpose of review Death is a certainty in life. Yet, the timing of death is often uncertain. When death occurs suddenly and earlier than anticipated, it is considered as an unexpected death. In this article, we shall discuss when is death expected and unexpected, and review the frequency, impact, causes, and approach to unexpected death in the palliative care setting.

Recent findings Even in the palliative care setting in which death is relatively common, up to 5% of deaths in hospice and 10% of deaths in palliative care units were considered to be unexpected. Unexpected death has significant impact on care, including unrealized dreams and unfinished business among patients, a sense of uneasiness and complicated bereavement among caregivers, and uncertainty in decision making among healthcare providers. Clinicians may minimize the impact of unexpected events by improving their accuracy of prognostication, communicating the uncertainty with patients and families, and helping them to expect the unexpected by actively planning ahead. Furthermore, because of the emotional impact of unexpected death on bereaved caregivers, clinicians should provide close monitoring and offer prompt treatment for complicated grief.

Summary Further research is needed to understand how we can better predict and address unexpected events.

Department of Palliative Care and Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, USA

Correspondence to David Hui, MD, MSc, Department of Palliative Care and Rehabilitation Medicine Unit 1414, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 1515 Holcombe Boulevard, Houston, TX 77030, USA. Tel: +1 713 606 3376; fax: +1 713 792-6092; e-mail: dhui@mdanderson.org

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