Supportive Care in Cancer

, Volume 17, Issue 6, pp 745–748

Futile medication use in terminally ill cancer patients

  • Rachel P. Riechelmann
  • Monika K. Krzyzanowska
  • Camilla Zimmermann
Short Communication

DOI: 10.1007/s00520-008-0541-y

Cite this article as:
Riechelmann, R.P., Krzyzanowska, M.K. & Zimmermann, C. Support Care Cancer (2009) 17: 745. doi:10.1007/s00520-008-0541-y



Cancer patients usually take many medications. The proportion of patients with advanced cancer who are taking futile drugs is unknown.

Materials and methods

We retrospectively reviewed the charts of all consecutive ambulatory patients with advanced cancer and who were receiving supportive care exclusively at palliative care clinics, Princess Margaret Hospital, to gather information on futile medications used by them. Futile medications were defined as unnecessary (when no short-term benefit to patients with respect to survival, quality of life, or symptom control was anticipated) or duplicate (two or more drugs from the same pharmacological class). Summary statistics were used to describe the results.


From November 2005 to July 2006, 82 (22%) of 372 patients were taking at least one futile medication before consultation; after initial consultation, this proportion dropped to 20% (78): 70 patients were taking unnecessary medications, while eight were on duplicate medications. The most frequent unnecessary medications used by patients were statins (56%). The most common duplicate medication involved the use of two different benzodiazepines (seven patients).


About one fifth of cancer outpatients at the end of life take futile medications, most commonly statins. Prospective and population-based studies are warranted to further evaluate the magnitude and consequences of futile medication use in oncology.


CancerDrug therapyMedical futility

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rachel P. Riechelmann
    • 1
  • Monika K. Krzyzanowska
    • 2
  • Camilla Zimmermann
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Internal MedicineFederal University of Sao PauloSão PauloBrazil
  2. 2.Department of Medical OncologyPrincess Margaret HospitalTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative CarePrincess Margaret HospitalTorontoCanada