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Support Care Cancer. 2016 Sep;24(9):3873-81. doi: 10.1007/s00520-016-3211-5. Epub 2016 Apr 16.

What are the barriers faced by medical oncologists in initiating discussion of palliative care? A qualitative study in Flanders, Belgium.

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End-of-life Care Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Laarbeeklaan 103, 1090, Brussels, Belgium.
End-of-life Care Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Laarbeeklaan 103, 1090, Brussels, Belgium.
End-of-life Care Research Group, Ghent University, De Pintelaan 185, 9000, Ghent, Belgium.
Department of Medical Oncology, Ghent University Hospital, De Pintelaan 185, Ghent, 9000, Belgium.



Before referring patients to a palliative care service, oncologists need to inform them about disease stage and discuss prognosis, treatment options and possible advantages of specialized palliative care (SPC). They often find this a complex and emotionally difficult task. As a result, they may refer their patients to SPC too late in the disease course or even not at all. This study reports findings from interviews with Belgian medical oncologists identifying the barriers they experience to introduce palliative care to their patients with advanced cancer.


The interviews were semi-structured with open-ended questions and were supported by a topic list. The transcripts were analysed during an iterative process using the grounded theory principles of open and axial coding until a final coding framework was reached.


The study identified seven heterogeneous categories of barriers which discourage oncologists from discussing palliative care: oncologist-related barriers, patient-related barriers, family-related barriers, barriers relating to the physician referring the patient to the medical oncologist, barriers relating to disease or treatment, institutional/organizational barriers and societal/policy barriers. These categories are further refined into subcategories.


These findings provide an explanation for the possible reasons why medical oncologists feel hampered in initiating palliative care and consequently discuss it rather late in the disease trajectory. The exploration and description of these barriers may serve as a starting point for revising the medical education of oncologists. They are also a reminder to hospital management and policy makers to be aware of the impact of these barriers on the daily practice of oncology.


Communication; Medical oncology; Palliative care; Qualitative research

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