Importance: Palliative care has the potential to improve care for patients and families undergoing high-risk surgery. Objective: To characterize the use of perioperative palliative care and its association with family-reported end-of-life experiences of patients who died within 90 days of a high-risk surgical operation. Design, Setting, and Participants: This secondary analysis of administrative data from a retrospective cross-sectional patient cohort was conducted in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Healthcare System. Patients who underwent any of 227 high-risk operations between January 1, 2012, and December 31, 2015, were included. Exposures: Palliative-care consultation within 30 days before or 90 days after surgery. Main Outcomes and Measures: The outcomes were family-reported ratings of overall care, communication, and support in the patient's last month of life. The VA surveyed all families of inpatient decedents using the Bereaved Family Survey, a valid and reliable tool that measures patient and family-centered end-of-life outcomes. Results: A total of 95204 patients underwent high-risk operations in 129 inpatient VA Medical Centers. Most patients were 65 years or older (69278 [72.8%]), and the most common procedures were cardiothoracic (31157 [32.7%]) or vascular (23517 [24.7%]). The 90-day mortality rate was 6.0% (5740 patients) and varied by surgical subspecialty (ranging from 278 of 7226 [3.8%] in urologic surgery to 875 of 6223 patients [14.1%] in neurosurgery). A multivariate mixed model revealed that families of decedents who received palliative care were 47% more likely to rate overall care in the last month of life as excellent than those who did not (odds ratio [OR], 1.47 [95% CI, 1.14-1.88]; P =.007), after adjusting for patient's characteristics, surgical subspecialty of the high-risk operation, and survey nonresponse. Similarly, families of decedents who received palliative care were more likely to rate end-of-life communication (OR, 1.43 [95% CI, 1.09-1.87]; P =.004) and support (OR, 1.31 [95% CI, 1.01-1.71]; P =.05) components of medical care as excellent. Of the entire cohort, 3374 patients (3.75%) had a palliative care consultation, and 770 patients (0.8%) received it before surgery. Of all decedents, 1632 (29.9%) had a palliative care consultation, with 319 (5.6%) receiving it before surgery. Conclusions and Relevance: Receipt of a palliative consultation was associated with better ratings of overall end-of-life care, communication, and support, as reported by families of patients who died within 90 days of high-risk surgery. Yet only one-third of decedents was exposed to palliative care. Expanding integration of perioperative palliative care may benefit patients undergoing high-risk operations and their families.
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