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J Pain Symptom Manage. 2014 Aug;48(2):231-248. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2013.07.018. Epub 2014 Jan 28.

Treating an established episode of delirium in palliative care: expert opinion and review of the current evidence base with recommendations for future development.

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Division of Palliative Care (S.H.B., J.L.P., M.H., P.G.L.) and Division of Critical Care (M.H.), Department of Medicine; Department of Psychiatry (K.R.); Department of Family Medicine (L.R.); Department of Epidemiology and Community Medicine (P.G.L.), University of Ottawa; Bruyère Research Institute (S.H.B., J.L.P., P.G.L.), Bruyère Continuing Care; The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (S.K., P.G.L.); Department of Pharmacy (S.K.) and Department of Radiation Oncology (L.R.); The Ottawa Hospital (K.R., M.H.), Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Institute of Public Health (D.H.J.D.), University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom; Discipline, Palliative and Supportive Services (D.C.C., M.A.), Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia; Graduate Entry Medical School (D.M.), University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland; McGill University (D.W.), Montreal, Quèbec, Canada; Department of Palliative Care and Rehabilitation Medicine (E.B.), The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, USA; South West Sydney Clinical School (M.A.), University of New South Wales; Department of Palliative Care (M.A.), Braeside Hospital, HammondCare, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia; Faculty of Pharmacy et Centre de Recherche en Cancèrologie (P.R.G.) and Dèpartement de Mèdecine Familiale et de Mèdecine d'Urgence (B.G.), Universitè Laval; Department of Psychiatry (P.R.G.), CHU de Quèbec; Centre de Recherche du CHU de Quèbec (B.G.), Quèbec City, Quèbec, Canada; and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (W.B.), Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York, USA.
Contributed equally



Delirium is a highly prevalent complication in patients in palliative care settings, especially in the end-of-life context.


To review the current evidence base for treating episodes of delirium in palliative care settings and propose a framework for future development.


We combined multidisciplinary input from delirium researchers and other purposely selected stakeholders at an international delirium study planning meeting. This was supplemented by a literature search of multiple databases and relevant reference lists to identify studies regarding therapeutic interventions for delirium.


The context of delirium management in palliative care is highly variable. The standard management of a delirium episode includes the investigation of precipitating and aggravating factors followed by symptomatic treatment with drug therapy. However, the intensity of this management depends on illness trajectory and goals of care in addition to the local availability of both investigative modalities and therapeutic interventions. Pharmacologically, haloperidol remains the practice standard by consensus for symptomatic control. Dosing schedules are derived from expert opinion and various clinical practice guidelines as evidence-based data from palliative care settings are limited. The commonly used pharmacologic interventions for delirium in this population warrant evaluation in clinical trials to examine dosing and titration regimens, different routes of administration, and safety and efficacy compared with placebo.


Delirium treatment is multidimensional and includes the identification of precipitating and aggravating factors. For symptomatic management, haloperidol remains the practice standard. Further high-quality collaborative research investigating the appropriate treatment of this complex syndrome is needed.


Delirium; decision making; evidence-based medicine; hospices; palliative care; therapeutics

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