PURPOSE: The purpose of this research is to study to what extent dying patients are aware of the imminence of death, whether such awareness is associated with patient characteristics, symptoms and acceptance of dying, and whether medical records and nurses' and family caregivers' views on patients' awareness of dying agree.
METHODS: Nurses and family caregivers of 475 deceased patients from three different care settings in the southwest Netherlands were requested to fill out questionnaires. The two groups were asked whether a patient had been aware of the imminence of death. Also, medical records were screened for statements indicating that the patient had been informed of the imminence of death.
RESULTS: Nurses completed questionnaires about 472 patients, family caregivers about 280 patients (response 59%). According to the medical records, 51% of patients had been aware of the imminence of death; according to nurses, 58%; according to family caregivers, 62%. Patients who, according to their family caregiver, had been aware of the imminence of death were significantly more often in peace with dying and felt more often that life had been worth living. Inter-rater agreement on patients' awareness of dying was fair (Cohen's kappa = 0.23-0.31).
CONCLUSIONS: Being aware of dying is associated with acceptance of dying, which supports the idea that open communication in the dying phase can contribute to the quality of the dying process. However, views on whether or not patients are aware of the imminence of death diverge between different caregivers. This suggests that communication in the dying phase of patients is open for improvement.