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The provision of end-of-life care by medical-surgical nurses working in acute care: A literature review

  • Judith Gagnon (a1) and Wendy Duggleby (a1)



Caring for terminally ill patients is complex, stressful, and at times distressing for nurses. Acute care hospitals continue to be the predominant place of death for terminally ill patients in most Western countries. The objective of the present literature review was to explore and gain an in-depth understanding of the experience of providing end-of-life (EOL) care by medical-surgical RNs working in acute care hospitals, to identify knowledge gaps, and to recommend future research.


A comprehensive literature review was conducted using the following electronic databases: CINAHL, MEDLINE, and PsyInfo (from 1992 to October 2012).


The findings from the 16 reviewed studies suggest that nurses felt a strong commitment to help terminally ill patients experience a good death. Nurses reported feeling deeply rewarded and privileged to share the EOL experience with patients/families. Organizational and individual factors influenced nurses' experience. Important challenges were associated with managing the divergent needs of a mixed patient load (i.e., curative and palliative care patients) in a biomedical culture of care that is heavily oriented toward cure and recovery. In this culture, nurses' emotional work and ideals of good EOL care are often not recognized and supported.

Significance of results:

Managerial and organizational support that recognize the centrality of emotional work nurses provide to dying patients is needed. More research exploring ways to improve communication among nurses and medical colleagues is essential. Finally, a critical examination of the ideological assumptions guiding nurses' practice of EOL care within the context of acute care is recommended to help reveal their powerful influence in shaping nurses' overall understanding and experience of EOL care.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Judith Gagnon, Faculty of Nursing, Level 3, Edmonton Clinic Health Academy, University of Alberta, 11405 87th Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta, CanadaT6G 1C9. E-mail:


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