The experience of delirium in palliative care settings for patients, family, clinicians and volunteers: A qualitative systematic review and thematic synthesis


Background: Delirium is common in palliative care settings and is distressing for patients, their families and clinicians. To develop effective interventions, we need first to understand current delirium care in this setting.

Aim: To understand patient, family, clinicians’ and volunteers’ experience of delirium and its care in palliative care contexts.

Design: Qualitative systematic review and thematic synthesis (PROSPERO 2018 CRD42018102417).

Data sources: The following databases were searched: CINAHL, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects, Embase, MEDLINE and PsycINFO (2000–2020) for qualitative studies exploring experiences of delirium or its care in specialist palliative care services. Study selection and quality appraisal were independently conducted by two reviewers.

Results: A total of 21 papers describing 16 studies were included. In quality appraisal, trustworthiness (rigour of methods used) was assessed as high (n = 5), medium (n = 8) or low (n = 3). Three major themes were identified: interpretations of delirium and their influence on care; clinicians’ responses to the suffering of patients with delirium and the roles of the family in delirium care. Nursing staff and other clinicians had limited understanding of delirium as a medical condition with potentially modifiable causes. Practice focused on alleviating patient suffering through person-centred approaches, which could be challenging with delirious patients, and medication use. Treatment decisions were also influenced by the distress of family and clinicians and resource limitations. Family played vital roles in delirium care.

Conclusions: Increased understanding of non-pharmacological approaches to delirium prevention and management, as well as support for clinicians and families, are important to enable patients’ multi-dimensional needs to be met.


delirium, palliative care, qualitative research, systematic review

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