Increasing population ageing means that deaths worldwide are expected to rise by 13 million to 70 million per year in the next 15 years. As a result, there is an urgent need to plan ahead to ensure we meet the growing end of life care needs of our population in the future.
Understanding where people die, and how this could change in the future, is vital to ensuring that health services are equipped to support people’s needs and preferences at the end of life. As researchers at the Cicely Saunders Institute, King’s College London, we investigated trends in place of death in England and Wales, and found that deaths occurring in care homes could more than double in the next 25 years if recent trends continue.
Using official records on over five and a half million deaths, as well as population forecasts, we estimated the number of people who will die in a range of different settings in years to come. The intention behind this study is that it will help to guide future planning of health and social care. From 2004 to 2014, the proportion of deaths occurring in care homes increased from 17% to 21%, with numbers rising from 85,000 to 106,000 per year. If this trend continues, the number of people dying in care homes will double to over 220,000 per year by 2040, and care homes will overtake hospitals as the most common place to die. Home deaths are also projected to increase over this period to over 216,000 deaths a year. Together, this means that deaths in the community are expected to account for over two-thirds of all deaths by 2040.
We also know that, increasingly, people are living and dying with multiple illnesses and frailty, which adds complexity to their care needs. The rising number of people with complex illness in the community is a challenge for end of life care. A recent study has shown that palliative care needs are expected to increase by 42% by the year 2040. We need greater integration of specialist palliative care into primary care services, as well as more training in palliative care for general health professionals, to ensure that those with palliative care needs can access services they require.
The projected rise of deaths in care homes and in peoples’ own homes is striking. We must ask care home and community services whether they are equipped to both support such an increase in demand and provide high quality end of life care. How can we provide the workforce needed to care for this growing patient group? To enable people to die in their preferred place in future, we need to ensure adequate bed capacity, resources, and training of staff in palliative and end of life care in all care homes in the country. These projections warn of the urgent need to invest more in care homes and community health services. Without this investment, people are likely to seek help from hospitals, which puts pressure on an already strained system and is not where most people would prefer to be at the end of their lives.
The time has come to test new approaches to care in order to ensure that we address this growing need of our population in the years to come. There are promising examples of innovations in care to increase the reach of palliative care services in community settings, for example project ECHO, which facilitates knowledge-sharing between specialist palliative care services, such as hospices, and general health care professionals such as those in care homes. In an era of increasing need alongside constrained health and social care budgets, developing and testing innovative ways to provide high quality care with minimal resources is imperative.
In the words of Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, “how people die remains in the memory of those who live on.”The inevitable population changes described here will affect all of us, directly or indirectly, in the years to come. It is time for us as a society to have an open discussion about how we want health services to be delivered to people towards the end of life. Crucially, we need better evidence on how we can best support a growing number of older people as they reach the end of their lives.
Featured image credit: Image 12419. CC0 via pxhere.