BACKGROUND: The need for increased use and timely initiation of palliative care for all people, not just those who die with cancer, has been advocated worldwide over the past decade.
AIM: To investigate whether there has been a time trend in the use of palliative care services and the timing of their initiation for older people.
DESIGN: Mortality follow-back survey among general practitioners in a nationally representative Sentinel Network in 2005-2010, 2013 and 2014 in Belgium.
SETTING/PARTICIPANTS: Of all their patients who died non-suddenly aged 65+ years, general practitioners reported sociodemographic and clinical data, use of any of the palliative care services available in Belgium and when the first of these services was initiated.
RESULTS: General practitioners identified 5344 deaths. Overall, palliative care service use increased from 39% in 2005 to 63% in 2014 ( p < 0.001). The use of a reference person for palliative care in a care home increased from 12% to 26% ( p < 0.001) and of a palliative homecare team from 14% to 17.5% ( p < 0.01), but hospital-based palliative care services did not increase. Controlling for sociodemographic characteristics, no differences were obtained over time in the proportion of cancer/non-cancer patients for whom they provided care. The timing of initiation of palliative care services remained unchanged at a median of 15 days before death.
CONCLUSION: Palliative care service use has increased mostly in care homes, possibly as a result of policy changes, while hospital-based palliative care services lag behind. Contrary to recommendations, access for non-cancer patients may remain difficult and palliative care is often initiated late in the disease trajectory.