Structure and integration of specialty palliative care in three NCI-designated cancer centers: a mixed methods case study

Karen E. Schifferdecker, Rebecca L. Butcher, Genevra F. Murray, Kristin E. Knutzen, Nirav S. Kapadia, Gabriel A. Brooks, Garrett T. Wasp, Susan Eggly, Laura C. Hanson, Gabrielle B. Rocque, Amanda N. Perry, Amber E. Barnato

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: Early access to specialty palliative care is associated with better quality of life, less intensive end-of-life treatment and improved outcomes for patients with advanced cancer. However, significant variation exists in implementation and integration of palliative care. This study compares the organizational, sociocultural, and clinical factors that support or hinder palliative care integration across three U.S. cancer centers using an in-depth mixed methods case study design and proposes a middle range theory to further characterize specialty palliative care integration. Methods: Mixed methods data collection included document review, semi-structured interviews, direct clinical observation, and context data related to site characteristics and patient demographics. A mixed inductive and deductive approach and triangulation was used to analyze and compare sites’ palliative care delivery models, organizational structures, social norms, and clinician beliefs and practices. Results: Sites included an urban center in the Midwest and two in the Southeast. Data included 62 clinician and 27 leader interviews, observations of 410 inpatient and outpatient encounters and seven non-encounter-based meetings, and multiple documents. Two sites had high levels of “favorable” organizational influences for specialty palliative care integration, including screening, policies, and other structures facilitating integration of specialty palliative care into advanced cancer care. The third site lacked formal organizational policies and structures for specialty palliative care, had a small specialty palliative care team, espoused an organizational identity linked to treatment innovation, and demonstrated strong social norms for oncologist primacy in decision making. This combination led to low levels of specialty palliative care integration and greater reliance on individual clinicians to initiate palliative care. Conclusion: Integration of specialty palliative care services in advanced cancer care was associated with a complex interaction of organization-level factors, social norms, and individual clinician orientation. The resulting middle range theory suggests that formal structures and policies for specialty palliative care combined with supportive social norms are associated with greater palliative care integration in advanced cancer care, and less influence of individual clinician preferences or tendencies to continue treatment. These results suggest multi-faceted efforts at different levels, including social norms, may be needed to improve specialty palliative care integration for advanced cancer patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number59
JournalBMC Palliative Care
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Care integration
  • Specialty palliative

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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