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01.12.2014 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2014 Open Access

BMC Palliative Care 1/2014

Initiating decision-making conversations in palliative care: an ethnographic discourse analysis

BMC Palliative Care > Ausgabe 1/2014
Emmanuelle Bélanger, Charo Rodríguez, Danielle Groleau, France Légaré, Mary Ellen Macdonald, Robert Marchand
Wichtige Hinweise

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

This manuscript was part of EB’s doctoral dissertation. As supervisors, CR and DG contributed to the design of the study, to the analysis of the data, and to drafting the manuscript through comments on several iterations. MEM, FL and RM were members of the doctoral committee and provided critical feedback on the interpretation of the data as well as on the preparation of the manuscript. RM also facilitated data generation. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.



Conversations about end-of-life care remain challenging for health care providers. The tendency to delay conversations about care options represents a barrier that impedes the ability of terminally-ill patients to participate in decision-making. Family physicians with a palliative care practice are often responsible for discussing end-of-life care preferences with patients, yet there is a paucity of research directly observing these interactions. In this study, we sought to explore how patients and family physicians initiated decision-making conversations in the context of a community hospital-based palliative care service.


This qualitative study combined discourse analysis with ethnographic methods. The field research lasted one year, and data were generated through participant observation and audio-recordings of consultations. A total of 101 consultations were observed longitudinally between 18 patients, 6 family physicians and 2 pivot nurses. Data analysis consisted in exploring the different types of discourses initiating decision-making conversations and how these discourses were affected by the organizational context in which they took place.


The organization of care had an impact on decision-making conversations. The timing and origin of referrals to palliative care shaped whether patients were still able to participate in decision-making, and the decisions that remained to be made. The type of decisions to be made also shaped how conversations were initiated. Family physicians introduced decision-making conversations about issues needing immediate attention, such as symptom management, by directly addressing or eliciting patients’ complaints. When decisions involved discussing impending death, decision-making conversations were initiated either indirectly, by prompting the patients to express their understanding of the disease and its progression, or directly, by providing a justification for broaching a difficult topic.


Decision-making conversations and the initiation thereof were framed by the organization of care and the referral process prior to initial encounters. While symptom management was taken for granted as part of health care professionals’ expected role, engaging in decisions regarding preparation for death implicitly remained under patients’ control. This work makes important clinical contributions by exposing the rhetorical function of family physicians’ discourse when introducing palliative care decisions.
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