Applied Evidence

Right place, right time: Facilitating end-of-life conversations

Author and Disclosure Information

This guide offers tips and resources to help you to engage in end-of-life conversations that address patients’ needs and reduce the burden on friends and family.


› Improve patients’ quality of life and satisfaction with care through the successful implementation of palliative care. C

Initiate end-of-life (EOL) discussions with patients with dementia at diagnosis, while the patient is cognizant and able to actively express their values and preferences for EOL care. C

Engage surrogate decision makers in conversations about dementia, its trajectory, and their role in EOL care early in the process. C

Strength of recommendation (SOR)

A Good-quality patient-oriented evidence
B Inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence
C Consensus, usual practice, opinion, disease-oriented evidence, case series



As the geriatric population continues to grow and treatment advances blur the lines between improving the length of life vs improving its quality, end-of-life (EOL) conversations are becoming increasingly important. These discussions are a crucial part of the advance care planning (ACP) process, in which patients discuss their treatment preferences and values with their caregiver/surrogate decision maker and health care provider to ultimately improve EOL decision-making and care. 1,2

EOL conversations are most helpful when incorporated in the outpatient setting as part of the patient’s ongoing health care plan or when initiating treatment for a chronic or life-threatening disease. Because family physicians promote general wellness, understand the patient’s health status and medical history, and have an ongoing—and often longstanding—relationship with patients and their families, we are ideally positioned to engage patients in EOL discussions. However, these conversations can be challenging in the outpatient setting, and often clinicians struggle not only to find ways to raise the subject, but also to find the time to have these supportive, meaningful conversations.3

In this article, we will address the importance of having EOL discussions in the outpatient setting, specifically about advance directives (ADs), and the reasons why patients and physicians might avoid these discussions. The role of palliative care in EOL care, along with its benefits and methods for overcoming patient and physician barriers to its successful use, are reviewed. Finally, we examine specific challenges associated with discussing EOL care with patients with decreased mental capacity, such as those with dementia, and provide strategies to successfully facilitate EOL discussions in these populations.

Moving patients toward completion of advance directives

Although many older patients express a desire to document their wishes before EOL situations arise, they may not fully understand the benefits of an AD or how to complete one. 4 Often the family physician is best equipped to address the patient’s concerns and discuss their goals for EOL care, as well as the potential situations that might arise.

Managing an aging population. Projections suggest that primary care physicians will encounter increasing numbers of geriatric patients in the next 2 decades. Thus it is essential for those in primary care to receive proper training during their residency for the care of this group of patients. According to a group of academic educators and geriatricians from internal medicine and family medicine whose goal was to define a set of minimal and essential competencies in the care of older adults, this includes training on how to discuss and document “advance care planning and goals of care with all patients with chronic or complex illness,” as well as how to differentiate among “types of code status, health care proxies, and advanced directives” within the state in which training occurs. 5

Educate patients and ease fears. Patients often avoid EOL conversations or wait for their family physician to start the conversation. They may not understand how ADs can help guide care or they may believe they are “too healthy” to have these conversations at this time. 4 Simply asking about existing ADs or providing forms to patients during an outpatient visit can open the door to more in-depth discussions. Some examples of opening phrases include:

  • Do you have a living will or durable power of attorney for health care?
  • Have you ever discussed your health care wishes with your loved ones?
  • Who would you want to speak for you regarding your health care if you could not speak for yourself? Have you discussed your health care wishes with that person?

By normalizing the conversation as a routine part of comprehensive, patient-centered care, the family physician can allay patient fears, foster open and honest conversations, and encourage ongoing discussions with loved ones as situations arise.6

Continue to: When ADs are executed...


Next Article: