Surgeons’ Perceived Barriers to Palliative and End-of-Life Care: A Mixed Methods Study of a Surgical Society

Background: Nearly 20% of colorectal cancer (CRC) patients present with potentially incurable (Stage IV) disease, yet their physicians do not integrate cancer treatment with palliative care. Compared with patients treated by primary providers, surgical patients with terminal diseases are significantly less likely to receive palliative or end-of-life care.

Objective: To describe surgeon perspectives on palliative and end-of-life care for patients with Stage IV CRCs.

Design: This is a convergent mixed methods study using a validated survey instrument from the Critical Care Peer Workgroup of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Promoting Excellence in End-of-Life Care Project with additional qualitative questions.

Settings: Participants were all current, nonretired members of the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons.

Main Outcome Measures: Surgeon-perceived barriers to palliative and end-of-life care for patients with Stage IV CRCs were identified.

Results: Among 131 Internet survey respondents (response rate 16.5%), 76.1% reported no formal education in palliative care, and specifically noted inadequate training in techniques to forgo life-sustaining measures (37.9%) and communication (42.7%). Over half (61.8%) of surgeons cited unrealistic expectations among patients and families as a barrier to care, which also limited discussion of palliation. At the system level, absence of documentation, appropriate processes, and culture hindered the initiation of palliative care. Thematic analysis of open-ended questions confirmed and extended these findings through the following major barriers to palliative and end-of-life care: (1) surgeon knowledge and training; (2) communication challenges; (3) difficulty with prognostication; (4) patient and family factors encompassing unrealistic expectations and discordant preferences; and (5) systemic issues including culture and lack of documentation and appropriate resources.

Limitations: Generalizability is limited by the small sample size inherent to Internet surveys, which may contribute to selection bias.

Conclusions: Surgeons valued palliative and end-of-life care but reported multilevel barriers to its provision. These data will inform strategies to reduce these perceived barriers.