Dying without dignity


Every year, approximately half a million people die in England. For three quarters of people, death is not sudden but is expected, and many of them may benefit from end of life or palliative care. There is potential to improve the experience of care in the last year and months of life for approximately 355,000 people.1  

As the independent organisation responsible for investigating complaints about the NHS, we see tragic cases where people’s suffering could have been avoided or lessened with the right care and treatment as they approached the end of their lives. The anguish that this causes them and their loved ones is unimaginable.  

End of life care is, sadly, a recurring and consistent theme in our casework. It has also been a key issue for the NHS for some time. We are committed to making sure that complaints make a difference. By highlighting the key themes we see in our casework, we can inform the debate about how, as a society, we can drive up standards to improve the quality of end of life care offered across the country.

This short report features 12 cases that illustrate the issues we regularly see in our casework on end of life care. The examples represent a diverse collection of powerful stories, drawn from a range of different health care settings. They are from all parts of the country and represent different areas of concern. 

Key themes are:

Not recognising that people are dying, and not responding to their needs 

– if the needs of those who are close to death are not recognised, their care cannot be planned or co-ordinated, which means more crises and distress for the person and their family and carers. 

Poor symptom control 

– people have watched their loved ones dying in pain or in an agitated state because their symptoms have been ineffectively or poorly managed. 

Poor communication 

– poor communication is an important element in our complaints on end of life care. It is clear that healthcare professionals do not always have the open and honest conversations with family members and carers that are necessary for them to understand the severity of the situation, and the subsequent choices they will have to make. 

Inadequate out-of-hours services 

– people who are dying and their carers suffer because of the difficulties in getting palliative care outside normal working hours. 

Poor care planning 

– a failure to plan adequately often leads to the lack of co-ordinated care, for example, GPs and hospitals can fail to liaise. 

Delays in diagnosis and referrals for treatment 

– this can mean that people are denied the chance to plan for the end of their life and for their final wishes to be met. 

The themes in this report chime with the findings and recommendations of other reports and inquiries.2 National audits (Royal College of Physicians and Marie Curie Palliative Care Institute, 2014) found that, for example, discussions with patients about their wishes for end of life care are recorded in less than half of cases, and only one fifth of hospitals provide ‘face-to-face’ palliative care services seven days a week. In March, the Health Select Committee published its report into End of Life Care.3 The Committee advocates that a named clinician supports the co-ordination of care. It also calls for further training in order to support difficult conversations. The Committee considers that all clinicians and providers should be aware of the Five Priorities of Care that were outlined by the Leadership Alliance for the Care of Dying People in its report One Chance to Get it Right in June 2014:

  1. The possibility that a person may die within the next few days or hours is recognised and communicated clearly, decisions are made and actions taken in accordance with the person’s needs and wishes, and these are regularly reviewed and decisions revised accordingly.
  2. Sensitive communication takes place between staff and the dying person, and those identified as important to them.
  3. The dying person, and those identified as important to them, are involved in decisions about treatment and care to the extent that the dying person wants.
  4. The needs of families and others identified as important to the dying person are actively explored, respected and met as far as possible.
  5. An individual plan of care, which includes food and drink, symptom control and psychological, social and spiritual support, is agreed, co-ordinated and delivered with compassion.

The Leadership Alliance for the Care of Dying People was a coalition of 21 national organisations that was set up to provide a focus for improving the care of people who are dying and their families. One Chance to Get it Right set out a new approach to caring for dying people that health and care organisations and staff in England should adopt in future, irrespective of the healthcare setting. The cases in this report clearly show that these priorities need to be implemented. 

Following on from the work of the Leadership Alliance, NHS England published Actions for End of Life Care: 2014-16. This set out NHS England’s commitment to end of life care and was one component of a wider ambition for statutory and voluntary partners in health and social care to work together to develop a vision for end of life care beyond 2015. This work is ongoing and is being carried out by the Ambitions for End of Life Care Partnership.4  

The experiences of people who are dying and their loved ones of the care provided by the NHS is a recurring theme in complaints.'

The Partnership aims to transform experiences of end of life care by: focusing on what would improve person-centred care; encouraging local communities to engage with the need for high quality care at the end of life; highlighting what would enable better co-ordination of care, in the last days of life as well as earlier in the course of the illness; and supporting networks of facilitators and champions. 

Ultimately, if the NHS is to learn from when things go wrong, the findings in this report should inform any new aims for better end of life care in the NHS in future. Our casework supports the work of the Ambitions for End of Life Care Partnership. We expect the members of the Partnership to make sure the findings in this report lead the way, so that standards and quality of end of life care are improved, and unacceptable variations in care are reduced.

1 NHS England (Nov 2014) Actions for End of Life Care: 2014-16

2 The Leadership Alliance for the Care of Dying People (June 2014) One Chance to Get it Right. Improving people’s experience of care in the last few days and hours of life.  

The Choice in End of Life Care Programme Board (Feb 2015) What’s important to me. A review of choice in end of life care. 

National Voices Every moment counts: A narrative for person centred co-ordinated care for people near the end of life. 

3 Health Committee (March 2015) End of Life Care: Fifth report of session 2014-15

4 The Partnership has been formed from members of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services;  Association of Ambulance Chief Executives; Association for Palliative Medicine; the Care Quality Commission; College of Health Care Chaplains; General Medical Council; Health Education England; Hospice UK; Macmillan; Marie Curie; National Bereavement Alliance; National Care Forum; National Council for Palliative Care; National Nurse Consultants Group; National Voices; NHS England; Patients Association; Public Health England; Royal College of GPs; Royal College of Nursing; Royal College of Physicians; Social Care Institute for Excellence; Sue Ryder Care; and Together for Short Lives.