Oncologic Emergencies: Palliative Care in the Emergency Department Setting

Drew A. Long, Alex Koyfman, Brit Long

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Background: Palliative care is an essential component of emergency medicine, as many patients with terminal illness will present to the emergency department (ED) for symptomatic management at the end of life (EOL). Objective: This narrative review evaluates palliative care in the ED, with a focus on the literature behind management of EOL symptoms, especially dyspnea and cancer-related pain. Discussion: As the population ages, increasing numbers of patients present to the ED with severe EOL symptoms. An understanding of the role of palliative care in the ED is crucial to effectively communicating with these patients to determine their goals and provide medical care in line with their wishes. Beneficence, nonmaleficence, and patient autonomy are essential components of palliative care. Patients without medical decision-making capacity may have an advance directive, do not resuscitate or do not intubate order, or Portable Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment available to assist clinicians. Effective and empathetic communication with patients and families is vital to EOL care discussions. Two of the most common and distressing symptoms at the EOL are dyspnea and pain. The most effective treatment of EOL dyspnea is opioids, with literature showing little efficacy for other therapies. The most effective treatment for cancer-related pain is opioids, with expeditious pain control achievable with a rapid fentanyl titration. It is also important to address nausea, vomiting, and secretions, as these are common at the EOL. Conclusions: Emergency clinicians play a vital role in EOL patient care. Clear, empathetic communication and treatment of EOL symptoms are essential.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)175-191
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Emergency Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021


  • advanced directive
  • analgesia
  • do not resuscitate and do not intubate orders
  • dyspnea
  • hospice
  • oncology
  • pain
  • palliative

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Emergency Medicine


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