Dodging Potholes From Cancer Care to Hospice Transitions

Sarah D'Ambruoso, NP


May 10, 2022

I'm often in the position of caring for patients after they've stopped active cancer treatments, but before they've made the decision to enroll in hospice. They remain under my care until they feel emotionally ready, or until their care needs have escalated to the point in which hospice is unavoidable.

Jenny, a mom in her 50s with metastatic pancreatic cancer, stopped coming to the clinic. She lived about 40 minutes away from the clinic and was no longer receiving treatment. The car rides were painful and difficult for her. I held weekly video visits with her for 2 months before she eventually went to hospice and passed away. Before she died, she shared with me her sadness that her oncologist – who had taken care of her for 3 years – had "washed his hands of [me]." She rarely heard from him after their final conversation in the clinic when he informed her that she was no longer a candidate for further therapy. The sense of abandonment Jenny described was visceral and devastating. With her permission, I let her oncology team know how she felt and they reached out to her just 1 week before her death. After she died, her husband told me how meaningful it had been for the whole family to hear from Jenny's oncologist who told them that she had done everything possible to fight her cancer and that "no stone was left unturned." Her husband felt this final conversation provided Jenny with the closure she needed to pass away peacefully.

Transitioning From Active Therapy to Symptom Management

Switching gears from an all-out pursuit of active therapy to focusing on cancer symptoms is often a scary transition for patients and their families. The transition is often viewed as a movement away from hope and optimism to "giving up the fight." Whether you agree with the warrior language or not, many patients still describe their journey in these terms and thus, experience enrollment in hospice as a sense of having failed.

The sense of failure can be compounded by feelings of abandonment by oncology providers when they are referred without much guidance or continuity through the hospice enrollment process. Unfortunately, the consequences of suboptimal hospice transitions can be damaging, especially for the mental health and well-being of the patient and their surviving loved ones. Hospice transitions seem to reside in an area of clinical practice that is overlooked or, in my experience they are considered an afterthought by many oncologists.

When managed poorly, hospice transitions can easily lead to patient and family harm, which is a claim supported by research. A qualitative study published in 2019 included 92 caregivers of patients with terminal cancer. The authors found three common pathways for end-of-life transitions – a frictionless transition in which the patient and family are well prepared in advance by their oncologist; a more turbulent transition in which patient and family had direct conversations with their oncologist about the incurability of the disease and the lack of efficacy of further treatments, but were given no guidance on prognosis; and a third type of transition marked by abrupt shifts toward end-of-life care occurring in extremis and typically in the hospital.

In the latter two groups, caregivers felt their loved ones died very quickly after stopping treatment, taking them by surprise and leaving them rushing to put end-of-life care plans in place without much support from their oncologists. In the last group, caregivers shared they received their first prognostic information from the hospital or ICU doctor caring for their actively dying loved one, leaving them with a sense of anger and betrayal toward their oncologist for allowing them to be so ill-prepared.

A Japanese survey published in 2018 in The Oncologist of families of cancer patients who had passed away under hospice care over a 2-year period (2012-2014), found that about one-quarter felt abandoned by oncologists. Several factors that were associated with feeling either more or less abandonment. Spouses of patients, patients aged less than 60 years, and patients whose oncologists informed them that there was "nothing more to do" felt more abandoned by oncologists; whereas families for whom the oncologist provided reassurance about the trajectory of care, recommended hospice, and engaged with a palliative care team felt less abandoned by oncologists. Families who felt more abandoned had higher levels of depression and grief when measured with standardized instruments.

"Don't Just Put in the Hospice Order and Walk Away"

Fortunately, there are a few low-resource interventions that can improve the quality of care-to-hospice transitions and prevent the sense of abandonment felt by many patients and families.

First, don't just put in the hospice order and walk away. Designate a staffer in your office to contact hospice directly, ensure all medical records are faxed and received, and update the patient and family on this progress throughout the transition. Taking care of details like these ensures the patient enrolls in hospice in a timely manner and reduces the chance the patient, who is likely to be quite sick at this point, will end up in the hospital despite your best efforts to get hospice involved.

Make sure the patient and family understand that you are still their oncologist and still available to them. If they want to continue care with you, have them name you as the "non–hospice-attending physician" so that you can continue to bill for telemedicine and office visits using the terminal diagnosis (with a billing modifier). This does not mean that you will be expected to manage the patient's hospice problem list or respond to hospice nurse calls at 2 a.m. – the hospice doctor will still do this. It just ensures that patients do not receive a bill if you continue to see them.

If ongoing office or video visits are too much for the patient and family, consider assigning a member of your team to call the patient and family on a weekly basis to check in and offer support. A small 2018 pilot study aimed at improving communication found that when caregivers of advanced cancer patients transitioning to hospice received weekly supportive phone calls by a member of their oncology team (typically a nurse or nurse practitioner), they felt emotionally supported, had good continuity of care throughout the hospice enrollment, and appreciated the ability to have closure with their oncology team. In other words, a sense of abandonment was prevented and the patient-provider relationship was actually deepened through the transition.

These suggestions are not rocket science – they are simple, obvious ways to try to restore patient-centeredness to a transition that for providers can seem routine, but for patients and families is often the first time they have confronted the reality that death is approaching. That reality is terrifying and overwhelming. Patients and caregivers need our support more during hospice transitions than at any other point during their cancer journey – except perhaps at diagnosis.

As with Jenny, my patient who felt abandoned, all it took was a single call by her oncology team to restore the trust and heal the sense of feeling forsaken by the people who cared for her for years. Sometimes, even just one more phone call can feel like a lot to a chronically overburdened provider – but what a difference a simple call can make.

D'Ambruoso is a hospice and palliative care nurse practitioner for UCLA Health Cancer Care, Santa Monica, Calif.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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