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J Oncol Pract. 2014 Mar;10(2):e37-44. doi: 10.1200/JOP.2013.001130. Epub 2013 Dec 3.

Oncologist factors that influence referrals to subspecialty palliative care clinics.

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University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute; University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA; Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL; Institute for Health Policy Studies; Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of California, San Francisco, CA; and Tisch Cancer Institute, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY.



Recent research and professional guidelines support expanded use of outpatient subspecialty palliative care in oncology, but provider referral practices vary widely. We sought to explore oncologist factors that influence referrals to outpatient palliative care.


Multisite, qualitative interview study at three academic cancer centers in the United States with well-established palliative care clinics. Seventy-four medical oncologists participated in semistructured interviews between February and October 2012. The interview guide asked about experiences and decision making regarding outpatient palliative care use. A multidisciplinary team analyzed interview transcripts using constant comparative methods to inductively develop and refine themes related to palliative care referral decisions.


We identified three main oncologist barriers to subspecialty palliative care referrals at sites with comprehensive palliative care clinics: persistent conceptions of palliative care as an alternative philosophy of care incompatible with cancer therapy, a predominant belief that providing palliative care is an integral part of the oncologist's role, and a lack of knowledge about locally available services. Participants described their views of subspecialty palliative care as evolving in response to increasing availability of services and positive referral experiences, but emphasized that views of palliative care as valuable in addition to standard oncology care were not universally shared by oncologists.


Improving provision of palliative care in oncology will likely require efforts beyond increasing service availability. Raising awareness of ways in which subspecialty palliative care complements standard oncology care and developing ways for oncologists and palliative care physicians to collaborate and integrate their respective skills may help.

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