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Practices and opinions of specialized palliative care physicians regarding early palliative care in oncology



To describe the practices and opinions of specialized palliative care (SPC) physicians regarding early palliative care for patients with cancer, determine characteristics associated with receiving early referrals; and solicit opinions regarding renaming the specialty “supportive care.”


The survey was distributed by mail and e-mail to physicians who had previously self-identified as providing palliative care. SPC physicians were defined as receiving palliative care referrals from other physicians and not providing palliative care only for their own patients.


The response rate was 71% (531/746), of whom 257 (48.4%) practiced SPC. Of these SPC physicians, 84% provided mainly cancer care; > 90% supported early palliative care referral in oncology and had referral criteria facilitating this, but only 20% received early referrals (> 6-month prognosis). There was ambivalence regarding caring for patients with full resuscitation status and responsibility for managing cancer treatment-related complications. SPC physicians receiving early referrals were more likely to be female (p = 0.02) and have a postgraduate degree (p = 0.02), and less likely to provide mainly cancer care (p = 0.03) and to agree that patients should stop chemotherapy before referral (p = 0.009). Although 60% agreed that patients perceive the term “palliative care” negatively and 39% believed a name change to supportive care would encourage early referral, only 21% supported renaming the specialty.


Although most SPC physicians supported early palliative care in oncology, the timing of referrals was often late, and was associated with characteristics of SPC physicians. Few SPC physicians supported renaming palliative care.

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We are grateful to Michelle Veer and the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians for their assistance in the distribution of our survey to palliative care providers across Canada and to Nanor Kevork, BSc, and Ashley Pope, BSc (Department of Supportive Care, University Health Network) for their support and assistance with survey development and data collection.


This research was funded by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS, William E. Rawls prize and grant no. 700862; CZ), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (grant no. 152996; CZ), and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care. Dr. Zimmermann is supported by the Rose Family Chair in Palliative Medicine and Supportive Care, Department of Medicine, University of Toronto.

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Correspondence to Camilla Zimmermann.

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Sorensen, A., Wentlandt, K., Le, L.W. et al. Practices and opinions of specialized palliative care physicians regarding early palliative care in oncology. Support Care Cancer 28, 877–885 (2020).

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  • Cancer
  • Oncology
  • Palliative care
  • Referral
  • Survey