Hospice Care Doesn't Hasten Death, Study Says

Terminally ill patients who opt to receive hospice care won't die any faster as a result of that choice, according to Korean researchers.

Their findings add to a recent U.S. debate over hospices, which some fear might accelerate the decline of very sick people.

Hospice care focuses on easing the pain and distress of people whose doctors have ruled out any chance of recovery, instead of offering aggressive medical treatment, which often comes with side effects.

In the U.S., most people receive hospice care at home. The major goal is to make patients comfortable as the end of life nears, using techniques that are not available from other medical specialties.

Yet few studies have looked at what the different types of care mean for survival, the Korean researchers note in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

They kept track of 481 cancer patients after doctors had judged that the disease was terminal. Those who got hospice care, slightly more than one-third, survived for 64 days on average, compared to 67 days for the rest.

The findings don't prove that each individual patient would fare the same regardless of the type of care he or she gets. It's possible that there were important differences between the people who spent their last days with hospice care and those who didn't.

Still, when the researchers tried to tease out the factors tied to survival, they found it didn't matter whether people got hospice care. Nor did it matter whether patients knew their illness was terminal.

On the other hand, patients who'd been admitted to intensive care units, and those with poorer general wellbeing, tended to die sooner.

Earlier studies have hinted that the type of symptom relief that hospices offer, called palliative care, may actually extend people's lives, Dr. Young Ho Yun, who worked on the new study, told Reuters Health in an email.

"I advise that earlier palliative care may help terminally ill patients get quality of care and life, and encourage palliative care use for the terminally ill," said Yun, of the National Cancer Center in Goyang, South Korea.