Annals of Nursing and Practice

Addressing Palliative Care Needs: The Role of Screening Tools

Review Article | Open Access | Volume 3 | Issue 2

  • 1. Department of Inpatient Hematology/Oncology, Stanford HealthCare, USA
  • 2. Department of Palliative Medicine, Stanford University, USA
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Corresponding Authors
*Corresponding author Alison Morris, Department of Inpatient Hematology/ Oncology, Stanford HealthCare, 300 Pasteur Drive, Palo Alto, CA

Background: It is estimated that by January 2024 there will be 19 million cancer survivors. This can be attributed to break throughs in cancer research and progressive treatment modalities that allow for longer life expectancies. There is also increased morbidity and quality of life impact on cancer patients and families that can be mitigated through an integrated palliative care and oncology approach. How and when to integrate these services is still an area of study. Appropriate screening using evidence-based guidelines may be one method to ensure integrated palliative oncology care.

Objective: To conduct a literature reviews of screening tools to determine if there is a specific tool that best fits screening for palliative care needs. Search Strategy: Cochrane, CINAHL, and PubMed databases were searched. Articles were included if they evaluated the impact of a screening tool or assessment strategy on more than one symptom associated with cancer. Articles were excluded if they (a) focused only on a specific symptom, (b) targeted patients with a particular cancer type, (c) did not pertain to palliative care, and (d) reviewed a non-validated and/or reliable tool.

Conclusions and Recommendations: This review of evidence strongly supports the utilization of a screening tool and evidence-based clinical care pathways to assist palliative care providers to accomplish better outcomes in a systematic and standardized way. Nursing is ideally situated to provide quality, accessible, interdisciplinary care coordination crucial to patient-centric management of cancer.


Cancer, Cancer patient, Palliative care, Symptom management, Screening tool


Morris A, Ramchandran K (2016) Addressing Palliative Care Needs: The Role of Screening Tools. Ann Nurs Pract 3(2): 1046.


CINAHL: Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature


There are approximately 14.5 million people in the United States living with cancer today. It is estimated that by January 2024 this number will grow to include 19 million cancer survivors. The increase in the number of survivors can be attributed to breakthroughs in cancer research and progressive treatment modalities that allow for longer life expectancies for patients with cancer. Currently, nearly half of those surviving with cancer are 70 years or older [1]. However, as people are living longer with (and without) cancer, it is apparent that a chasm exists between these extraordinary innovations in treatment and the longitudinal impact these therapies have on the quality of life (QOL) of patients, as well as their loved ones [2,3].

Research indicates that patients with serious illnesses do not receive adequate symptom management and have unmet psychosocial needs leading to poor patient and family satisfaction [2,4,5]. Furthermore, studies have revealed that clinicians do not adequately screen for emotional distress, physical, or psychological needs leaving a major gap in health care for these patients [6,7]. It is becoming increasingly more important for providers to identify and manage the long-term psychological, social, emotional, physical, and spiritual effects implicated by chronic disease and its treatments, helping to fill this gap by reducing symptom burden, enhancing quality of life [8,9,4,5].

Palliative medicine can further assist to close the gap between treatment and impaired quality of life due to bothersome and pervasive symptoms by supporting providers in managing patient/caregiver needs by collaboratively working towards mitigating distressing symptoms. Palliative medicine is committed to caring for the whole person, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. While palliative medicine has been a board certified specialty since 2006 [10] and has become especially prominent in cancer care in recent years [11]. there remains much variety in how and where palliative care is integrated [12]. The question arises, how do we more effectively identify cancer patients in need of palliative care services at the right time in their disease trajectory? This paper reviews the current evidence on palliative care screening in the cancer patient population to understand contemporary best practice for palliative care and oncology integration.



The Institute of Medicine report [13] Improving Palliative Care for Cancer brought awareness to the role of palliative care as a mechanism toward better management of complex symptoms and psychosocial issues, and called for improved access to palliative care services. Over 10 years later, the American Society of Clinical Oncology [14] (ASCO) published a provisional clinical opinion (PCO) stating, when combined with standard oncology care, palliative care leads to better patient and caregiver outcomes. The most significant of these studies to date is a phase III randomized control trial (RCT) conducted by Temel, et al., [15] with patients who have metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The findings of this study revealed an increased QOL (98.0 vs. 91.5 [high scores indicating better QOL], p= 0.03) and a decrease of depressive symptoms (16% vs. 38%, p= 0.01) among participants in the study group. A surprising finding was the median survival rate: patients survived longer in the intervention group (11.6 months vs. 8.9 months, p= 0.02) despite a decrease in the aggressiveness of end-of-life care (33% vs. 54%, p=0.05).

As palliative medicine has continued to evolve, so has the complexity of the care needed by cancer patients [17]. In a systematic review of 44 studies (involving 25,074 patients), Teunissen, et al., [18] identified 37 symptoms common to more than ten percent of patients. ‘Fatigue’, ‘pain’, ‘lack of energy’, ‘weakness’, and ‘loss of appetite’ were the most common symptoms reported. Interestingly, the most significant finding, and consequent limitation of this study, was the inconsistency among symptom assessment methods, which led to varying degrees of symptom prevalence responses. As a recommendation, Teunissen, et al., encourage the utilization of a standardized comprehensive assessment tool, such as a questionnaire, to further capture the true essence of symptom burden among these patients.

This recommendation along with ASCO14 and the National Cancer Care Network (NCCN) [19] collectively advocate for the integration of palliative care into cancer care. Furthermore, the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) [20,21], a nationallyrecognized organization committed to palliative care growth and development [22], recommends the use of a screening tool(s) for assessment of physical, emotional/psychosocial, medical, or spiritual needs.

Aims of this Review

The aim of this literature review is three-fold: (1) identify how symptom assessment tools are utilized in healthcare practice, most specifically oncology care (2) ascertain the documented efficacy of screening tool use, and (3) present implications and recommendations from the evidence for how best to screen for palliative care needs.

Search Strategy

A review of literature was conducted utilizing Cochrane, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), and PubMed databases. Free-text terms were used in different combinations to search each of the databases. The terms used include: screening tool (s), symptom assessment, palliative care, cancer, measure, symptom, and outcome. In order to obtain the most comprehensive review of the literature, the only limits were articles written in English and a publication date no earlier than 2002. Articles were selected for inclusion if they evaluated the impact of a screening tool on more than one symptom associated with cancer. Articles were excluded if the study (a) focused only on one specific symptom, (b) targeted patients with a particular cancer type, (c) did not pertain to holistic patient care needs, and (d) reviewed a non-validated and/or reliable tool. A total of 271 articles were retrieved through the various search term combinations. After removing duplicates, each article was individually examined; and 16 articles were selected for review. See figure 1 for search strategy flow diagram.

Search Strategy Flow Diagram.

Figure 1 Search Strategy Flow Diagram.

Review of Evidence

While conducting research for this paper, this author came across numerous critiques of the reviewed articles, however, it is beyond the scope of this paper to synthesize these critiques. Rather, this paper is an exploration of the selection and utilization of symptom assessment tools employed across the healthcare industry in palliative medicine. Table 1 illustrates tool prevalence among the reviewed studies while

Table 1: Tool Prevalence among Studies Reviewed

Study Author   Patient-Focused Multidimensional Screening Tools
Temel et al                   X                              
Bakitas et al     X               X                            
Browner & Smith     X X                 X X X                    
Stromgren et al.     X X               X   X     X                
Schultheis et al.       X                                          
Seow et al.     X                                            
Kamal et al.                                   X              
Brasel   X X X                   X         X            
Dudgeon et al.     X   X                                        
Bush et al.       X   X X   X                                
Richards et al.                                 X           X    
Pelayo-Alvarez et al.                                   X       X      
Katcheressian et al.     X                                     X      
Dupis et al. X                                         X   X X
Zimmerman et al.     X   X     X                         X        
Abbreviations: ASyMS-YG: Advanced Symptom Management System – Young; CAMPAS-R: Cambridge Palliative Assessment Schedule; ESAS: Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale; EORTC QLQ-C30: European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer’s Quality of Life Core Questionnaire; FAMCARE: Family Satisfaction with Advanced Cancer Care; FAACT: Functional Assessment of Anorexia Cachexia Therapy; FACIT-F: Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy-Fatigue; FACIT-Sp: Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy- Spiritual Wellbeing; FACT-G: Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy- General; FACT-L: Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy- Lung; FACT-PC: Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy- Palliative Care; HADS: Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale; MQOL: McGill Quality of Life Questionnaire; MDASI: MD Anderson Symptom Inventory; MSAS: Memorial Symptom Assessment Scale; MSAS-C: Memorial Symptom Assessment Scale Condensed (MSAS-C); NEST: Needs at the End Of Life Screening Tool; POS: Palliative Care Outcome Score; QDAT-PC: Quality Data Collection Tool for Palliative Care; Q&Q: Quality and Quantity of Life Questionnaire; QUAL-E: Quality of Life at the End-of-Life; RSCL: Rotterdam Symptom Checklist; SPEED: Screening for Palliative Care Needs in the ED; SDS: Symptom Distress Scale; TRSC-C: Therapy-Related Symptom Checklist – Child

Table 2 provides a comparison of the instruments.

Table 2: Comparison of Most Prevalent Multidimensional Screening Tools.

Tool Tool Authors Targeted Measures Measurement 
Scoring Initial Sample 
Reporter Time to 
et al.
comprised of 5 
functional scales: 
physical, role, 
cognitive, emotional, 
and social
Numeric grading 
Scores range from 
0-100 with a higher 
score indicating 
a higher level of 
functioning or 
greater degree of 
Cancer patients 
participating in 
clinical trials
Patient 11-12 minutes
ESAS Bruera et al. 9 questions 
addressing 9 
pain, tiredness, 
drowsiness, nausea, 
lack of appetite, 
depression, anxiety, 
SOB, wellbeing
+ blank scale to add 
Visual analogue 
scale- severity of 
Sum total= score. 
The higher 
the score, the 
more severe the 
palliative care 
allowed if 
patient unable
MSAS Portenoy et al. 32 physical and 
symptoms, divided 
into 2 subscales: GDI 
Numeric grading 
scale- rating 
severity, and 
distress of each 
symptom present 
over the past 7 
Total score= 
average score of all 
32 symptoms
population; no 
specific setting
Patient Unknown*
POS Hearn et al. 10 questions 
addressing physical, 
psychological, and 
spiritual domains + 
free text space to list 
“main problems” that 
have occurred over 
the past 3 days
Numeric grading 
No formal scoring; 
each item provides 
standalone insight
Palliative care setting Patients or 
Staff- there 
are 2 different 
≤ 10 minutes
RSCL deHaes et al. 39 questions across 
4 domains: physical 
symptom distress, 
distress, activity level, 
overall global QOL
Numeric grading 
(4-point Likert 
Total= sum of 
The higher the 
score, the higher 
the level of hurt or 
Cancer patients 
in clinical 
Patient 8 minutes
Abbreviations: EORTC QLQ-C30- European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer’s Quality of Life Core Questionnaire; SOBShortness of Breath; ESAS- Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale; MSAS- Memorial Symptom Assessment Scale; GDI- global distress index; PSYCHpsychology; POS- Palliative Care Outcome Scale; RSCL- Rotterdam Symptom Checklist; QOL- quality of life
*Not mentioned in original study of tool development
**The staff version includes an additional question regarding performance scale

Screening Tool Overview

Brasel [23] introduces several screening tools and discusses the importance of selecting the tool that will most accurately assess for specific outcome(s) of interest. She reviewed the Karnofsky Performance Scale (KPS), the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS), the Memorial Symptom Assessment Scale (MSAS), the Quality and Quantity of Life Questionnaire, the Cambridge Palliative Assessment Schedule (CAMPAS-R), and the Palliative Outcome Surgery Score. Brasel provided a brief description of each tool and explained its application in practice. While this list is not comprehensive, it highlights the role of each of these screening tools in palliative care practice. Furthermore, Brasel reviewed the usefulness of screening tools as an objective way to estimate prognosis, to reduce the potential for clinician bias to influence patients and their caregivers when considering patient goals and desire for treatment, and to assist in monitoring progress and evaluating efficacy of practice.

Although they did not endorse specific assessment tools, the National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science pane [l] convened in July 2002 to discuss ways to improve awareness of cancer-related symptom burden and increase involvement in combating its negative impact on QOL, particularly addressing pain, depression, and fatigue. This 14-member panel of oncology, radiology, psychology, nursing, social work, public health, and epidemiology concluded that routine screenings using brief assessment tools should be employed to better provide evidencebased care. Additionally, they recommended visual analog scale (VAS) or numeric rating scales to be the framework for these chosen assessment tools.

Richards, et al., [24] observed a gap in assessment of palliative care needs and care directed towards these needs in the ED. As a solution to help cancer patients better communicate their complex palliative care needs to ED providers, and in hopes of facilitating care according to specific need(s), 12 ED clinicians developed and implemented a multidimensional palliative care assessment tool for cancer patients who present to the ED, Screening for Palliative Care Needs in the ED (SPEED). Each of these clinicians had training in Education in Palliative and End-Of-Life (EOL) Care (EPEC). Each question on the SPEED instrument was individually matched to similar questions on other validated screening tools, totaling 3,011 questions from 86 identified symptom assessment tools. Their aim was to evaluate the validity and reliability of this screening tool against these other standardized assessment tools. After extensive analysis, the SPEED tool was found to be effective and valid in screening for palliative care needs in the ED.

Browner and Smith [25] sought to identify ‘gerocentric’ assessment tool metrics to capture the true complexity of cancer needs in the elderly population. They recognized it is not only crucial to intervene when symptom burden is present, but it is imperative to consider the spectrum of palliative care needs in the elderly. The five screening tools they highlighted were the Memorial Symptom Assessment Scale (MSAS), the Condensed Memorial Symptom Assessment Scale (MSAS-C), the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS), the MD Anderson Symptom Inventory (MDASI), and the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer’s Quality of Life Core Questionnaire (EORTC QLQ-C30). In their practice, Browner and Smith use a ‘Rounding Tool’ that stems from the MSAS-C that asks two questions specific to the reported symptom. With the implementation of this particular tool, they have demonstrated a reduction of symptoms in a cohort of patients. They concluded that while there are several validated and useful screenings, not one is explicit to the elderly population, nor is one all-inclusive. Browner and Smith further highlighted that many of the interventions used to treat younger patients are also effective in the elderly.

While many tools have been developed and tested in adult cancer patients, Dupuis, et al., [26] reviewed the pediatric literature for current symptom assessment scales in order to determine if any of the scales identified could be utilized in practice to screen symptoms. Fourteen articles were included in the review and eight scales were found. These scales included: the Advanced Symptom Management System – Young (ASyMS-YG), the Memorial Symptom Assessment Scale (MSAS), the Rotterdam Symptom Checklist (RSCL), the Symptom Distress Scale (SDS), Therapy-related Symptom Checklist – Child (TRSC-C), and two study-specific questionnaires (names not included in article). However, most of these tools were only used to assess symptom prevalence and none informed symptom management. In addition, to strongly advocate for a pediatric symptom screening tool, Dupuis, et al., also encouraged the development of evidencebased practice guidelines to guide the management of each symptom identified.

Is One Screening Tool Better Than Another?

Many of the reviewed articles sought to explore whether one screening tool outweighed another. Strömgren, et al [27] recognized the array of symptoms cancer patients experience and the inability of one tool to accurately capture them all. The aim of their retrospective study was to (1) identify the most common symptoms that warranted a palliative medicine referral, and (2) compare their findings with five validated and widely used questionnaires. The five tools evaluated included: EORTC QLQ-C30, the ESAS, the Palliative Care Outcome Scale (POS), the McGill Quality of Life Questionnaire (MQOL), and MSAS. From their inclusion and exclusion criteria, these authors identified 171 eligible inpatient adults. They did a chart review to identify individual patient’s primary symptom(s) or problem(s). Strömgren, et al., used the symptoms list from the EORTC QLQ-C30 and the ESAS to build their symptom inventory. These authors found that the EORTC QLQ-C30 and the ESAS collectively covered 12 of the most commonly identified problems in the medical record, concluding the EORTC QLQ-C30 to be the better comprehensive screening tool because it is more generalizable to different cancer populations and used validated psychometric properties.

In their prospective, cross-sectional study, Schultheis, et al., [3] set out to determine how to best evaluate QOL among patients undergoing chemotherapy for a gastrointestinal (GI) malignancy. They employed the EORTC QLQ-C30, Beck depression inventory (BDI), and the VAS for assessment of pain in 150 patients. Low scores on the BDI and VAS were predictive of poor results in nearly all areas on the EORTC QLQ-C30 (indicating poor quality of life). Like Strömgren et al., these authors also found the EORTC QLQ-C30 adequately incorporated the assessment of pain and depression, and could be considered as a single all-inclusive assessment tool. An additional advantage identified was its ability to be converted to an electronic version and distributed via the Internet or on hand-held devices.

Pelayo-Alvarez et al., [28] also conducted a comparative study between the POS, Brief Pain Index (BPI), and Rotterdam Symptom Checklist (RSCL) to evaluate the reliability and criterion validity of the POS as the concurrent validity among similar domains in the RSCL and BPI. Analytical findings indicated concurrent validity of the POS only with the physical domain on the RCSL. However, the pain domain on the BPI is interchangeable with the pain and physical domains of the RCSL. Nevertheless, these tools are not interchangeable and the POS cannot be substituted with the BPI or RCSL and obtain the same outcome measures.

Bush et al., [29] also advocate for a standardized way to assess QOL in cancer patients, yet recognize the difficulty in accomplishing this given the large and varying symptoms experienced. Thus, the authors conducted a retrospective study to explore the relationship between the single-item ESAS and the multidimensional Functional Assessment of Cancer TherapyGeneral (FACT-G), specifically the “feeling of well being” (ESAS WB), and family well being (FWB), but did not include the social well being (SWB) domain. No conclusive statements or implications for practice were recommended. Interestingly, the authors divulged that they use the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy Fatigue (FACIT-F) and the Functional Assessment of Anorexia/Cachexia Treatment (FAACT) in their daily practices.

The Role of Screening Tools in Measuring Outcomes

Dudgeon et al., [30] conducted an evaluation study in which they employed a variety of interventions and conducted preand post-study surveys to determine how the practice changes implemented affected the management of symptoms in cancer patients, caregiver burden, and overall satisfaction of care. The practice changes developed for the purpose of this study involved an extensive multidisciplinary care team and consisted of using standardized screening tools, consensus-based collaborative care plans (CCPs), and guidelines for symptom management to improve responsiveness of the system to meet patient and caregiver needs. Outcome measures included: number of emergency department (ED) visits, inpatient hospital admissions, hospital lengths of stay, number of referrals to both outpatient and inpatient palliative care programs, and time enrolled in a home, long-term care facility, and palliative care units until death. The ESAS tool was administered to eligible patients in November 2002 and November 2003. The Family Satisfaction with Advanced Cancer Care (FAMCARE) instrument was used to measure caregiver and patient satisfaction with palliative care, and was administered in November 2002 and November 2003. Lastly, the caregiver reaction assessment (CRA), which inquires about caregiver burden, was administered to caregivers in November 2002 and November 2003.

A chart review of two cohorts of participants, both including patients and caregivers, was used for data analysis and evaluation of interventions. The findings demonstrated an improvement in symptom documentation, most significantly in pain documentation (p<.001) and a decrease in all mean symptom scores on the ESAS (indicating improvement), except for depression. These findings, however, were not deemed statistically significant (p= 0.121- 0.914), but could still be considered clinically significant. There was no significant improvement in satisfaction related to care among caregivers or patients, nor was there a difference in caregiver burden between 2002 and 2003. Administrative outcomes revealed a reduction in the number of visits made to the ED, fewer inpatient hospital admissions, and a decrease in deaths in the acute care setting.

The acknowledgment of invasive symptom prevalence among cancer patients initiated a discussion about what to do when symptoms are identified [25,5] Seow et al., [31] examined whether patients who reported greater symptom burden, indicated by higher scores on symptom assessment measures, received superior symptom-specific intervention. To evaluate symptoms, the authors used an electronic form of the ESAS and conducted retrospective chart reviews of 912 breast and lung cancer patient visits noting documentation of symptom(s) and whether action was taken to address the identified symptom (s) within one week. The primary independent variables were pain and shortness of breath (SOB) and the outcome measure was action taken related to either symptom whether it was drug therapy, a referral, a test, or other treatment. Scores were categorized as none (0), mild (1-3), moderate (4-6), or severe (7- 10).

Seow et al., found a greater correlation between ‘severe’- reported symptoms and documentation (48% for pain and 79% for SOB). However, this did not consistently correlate to enhanced documentation of actions taken related to the symptom, yet as the severity of symptoms worsened, clinicians were more likely to document the symptom and take action. The authors discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the use of a screening tool and recognized that it does not always lead to improved symptom management, but they believed it facilitated discussion of treatment plans and provided a consistent unit of measure for symptom monitoring. The findings also suggested more attention is needed to create clear clinical care pathways for symptom intervention to better alleviate symptoms and lead to improved patient outcomes.

Kamal et al., [32] pioneered their own electronic assessment tool, the Quality Data Collection Tool for Palliative Care (QDACTPC), which measured the relationship between assessment of symptoms and patient outcomes. In this cross-sectional analysis they compiled 18 metrics taken from ASCO’s Quality Oncology Practice Initiatives (QOPI); the Cancer Assessing Symptoms, Side Effects, and Indications of Supportive Treatment (ASSIST); and the Carolinas Center for Medical Excellence in Hospice: Prepare, Embrace, Attend, Communicate, and Empower (PEACE) project. Conformance was measured for each metric across 459 cancer patients. Assessment of comprehensive symptoms, including constipation and fatigue, and the timely management of reported symptoms were all highly positively correlated to greater QOL (p< .05) and emotional wellbeing (p= .001). Additionally, a high performance status (measured by the Palliative Performance Scale (PPS)) was also predictive of high QOL ([OR], 5.21; P= .003). Though not without limitations, this study illustrates how to test conformance among quality measures and evaluate patient outcomes. While it does show 100% positive correlation of evaluable measures with QOL, this study does demonstrate the utilization of a screening tool to assist in more fully understanding patient needs and how interventions positively influence patient outcomes, specifically QOL.

In a randomized control trial, Carlson et al., [33] screened all eligible patients through kiosks located in the clinic, then randomized patients to receive either computer-based triage or personalized triage. The computer-based triage group was the control group. Once patients completed their screening at the kiosk, a report was generated, printed, and recommended services were outlined based on the patient-specific responses. Services included psychosocial support, resource counseling, pain, fatigue, and nutrition management services. The patient then determined they would benefit from any one or more the services and thus would self-refer.

The personalized triage group participants would also complete their screening at the kiosk and receive a printed report however, they would be contacted via a telephone call by a psychosocial healthcare professional within three days of completing the screening. The healthcare professional would then review the same options given to the computerized triage group, and put in a referral(s) based on the professional’s clinical judgment. A total of 3,133 patients provided baseline data with 1,709 patients remaining at the end of 12 months. Follow-up was made via phone or email at three, six, and 12 months after initial screening.

The primary objective of this study was to evaluate whether there were any changes between groups in regards to distress, anxiety, depression, pain, and/or fatigue over the course of the 12-month study period. Surprisingly, the authors did not observe any differences between groups; both groups experienced decreases in each of the five categories. An interesting distinction was seen in the group who received personalized triage: this group accessed more services than the computerized group (1,213 services versus 825 services). However, all patients who used services demonstrated greater improvement of symptoms overtime, but were more anxious, depressed, and had more distress at baseline.

This study demonstrates the efficacy of the provision of resources on improving outcomes in addition to screening. The ultimate take away from this study is the importance of comprehensive assessment and management of symptoms once they are identified through screening to achieve the most positive outcomes and provide the most benefit to the patient. The authors suggest that personalized triage may provide greater benefit to patients with high anxiety and depression as these patients were more likely to use the available services. Nevertheless, both methods of triage were effective in managing symptoms.

In their cluster randomized controlled trial, Zimmerman et al., [34] sought to assess the impact of early palliative care on various aspects of quality of life. Quality of life was assessed using the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy- Spiritual Wellbeing (FACIT-Sp) and the quality of life at the end-of-life (QUAL-E). Symptom severity was assessed using the Edmonton Symptom Assessment System (ESAS), satisfaction with care was assessed using the family caregiver satisfaction of palliative care services scale (FAMCARE-P16), and problems with medical interactions was assessed using the Cancer Rehabilitation Evaluation System Medical Interaction Subscale (CARES-MIS). These assessments were conducted at baseline and monthly for every four months.

Between December 1, 2006 and February 28, 2014, 461 patients from 24 medical oncology clinics at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada were cluster randomized to either consultation and follow-up by a palliative care tam or to standard oncology care. These patients had advanced cancer, a European Cooperative Oncology Group Score (ECOG) of 0-2 (indicating good performance status), and a prognosis of 6-24 months. Two hundred twenty eight patients were randomized to the intervention group and 233 to the control group. Those randomized to the interventions group— early introduction of palliative care—received monthly visits by a palliative care physician and palliative care RN. At every visit, patients received: a structured physical and symptom assessment; discussed goals of care, support needs, coping and psychosocial distress; and discussed advanced care planning if the patient was ready and willing. Each patient received a followup phone call after every visit by a palliative care RN and had access to a 24-hour on-call palliative care service.

Those randomized to the control group received standard oncology care, which consisted of visits with their oncologist or oncology RN ad hoc, mostly around chemotherapy or radiation treatment visits. This group did not receive routine assessment of physical, social, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing nor did they receive any follow-up phone calls unless necessary for logistical reasons or if receiving a return phone call. This group did have access to a 24-hour oncology telephone service, staffed by an oncology resident or other oncology clinician. These patients could also receive a palliative care consult by request.

There was a significant difference between the control and intervention group on the QUAL-E (p=0.05) and FAMCARE-P16 (p= 0.0003) at three months, indicating patients in the intervention group experienced greater quality of life at the end-of-life and had enhanced family caregiver satisfaction than those receiving standard care. At four months, patients in the intervention group had higher scores on the FACIT-Sp, QUAL-E, and FAMCARE-P16, representing greater quality of life and satisfaction with care. ESAS scores were less than the control group, indicating better symptom control. There was no significant difference between scores on the CARES-MIS between groups. Although not without limitations, the findings from this study favor the integration of palliative care services with standard oncology care in improving quality of life and satisfaction with care for patients with advanced cancers.

The Influence of Screening Tools on Clinical Care Pathways

Khatcheressian et al., [21] advocate for better recognition of symptoms in cancer patients and the implementation of algorithms or clinical care pathways that will adequately address and monitor for change. These authors review the state of palliative care practice and serve as a resource for practical ways to integrate the control of symptoms into patient care. The authors (who are palliative care experts from the Palliative Leadership Center) endorse both the ESAS and RSCL as appropriate symptom assessment measurements. The paper reviewed various studies that demonstrate improved outcomes in pain using pain assessment scales and algorithms as an example for the utility of assessment scales in practice. Furthermore, the correlation among improved symptom control and lower healthcare costs was examined. This paper also highlights the standard set forth by the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) that utilization of standardized, feasible, reliable, and valid assessment tools should be incorporated into daily practice. Additionally, Khatcheressian et al., briefly discuss how electronic triggers have the potential to aide physicians in improving palliative care assessments and more successfully integrating evidence-based practice guidelines into palliative care practice.



In attempt to operationalize and heed the recommendation from ASCO [14] and the NCCN [19] to incorporate palliative care alongside cancer care early in the disease process, the articles reviewed have uncovered a common discrepancy: a lack of standardization of tools to assess the impact of palliative care and evaluate outcomes in an organized way. Furthermore, a resounding endorsement for a specific symptom assessment tool to use is lacking despite the significant body of evidence supporting the value of screening tools in palliative care practice. A majority of the articles recommend similar characteristics such tools should possess.

Focusing on screening tools specific to emotional distress, Vodermaeir et al., [7] discuss general principles for the selection and application of such tools. The recommendation is for shorterlength tools for patients in the hospital or who are undergoing treatment. The goal is to conserve patient energy as well as taking into consideration the feasibility of using a longer assessment tool in the acute care setting. On the other hand, they advocate for longer screening tools to be administered to patients posttreatment or in the outpatient setting as the tool was found to more comprehensively capture patient needs. They advised for the consideration of psychometric properties and encouraged tool length, treatment setting, and patient disease stage to ensure an appropriate tool selection.

Advantages of Screening Tools

The following advantages were highlighted by the authors that were included in this review:

• Allow for objective evaluation by the patient, family, and provider [23] and highlight symptom control [23,26,32].

• Aide in facilitating open discussion about met and unmet goals, as well as treatment plans and expectations [3,29].

• Help predict prognosis and survival [23].

• Be integrated into the electronic medical record and distributed via hand-held devices or touch screens [3,21,31].

• Can improve symptom documentation [30,31]

• Foster better individual patient symptom assessment and individualized treatment [3,31,32].

• Provide a standard way in which to initially assess and monitor symptoms throughout the course of the cancer care trajectory [3,6,7,21,27,24,28,29,30].

• Assist in early detection of symptoms and more quickly detect changes as they occur [2]

• Help prioritize patient services and resources based on symptom prevalence and severity [26].

Disadvantages of Screening Tools

• Those who are sicker may not be able to use assessment tools and the lower response rates from this patient population skews information about these particular patient needs [6,27,35].

• No tool is completely comprehensive, thus there is the chance for certain symptoms not to be offered or addressed

• There is the potential for administrator bias or inaccurate administration of tool without training on tool implementation [36].

Not included in the scope of this paper, but future topics of interest may be: whether patients with a particular cancer type or chronic illness (e.g. heart failure or diabetes) have specific care needs, and are there screening tools available to best assess for these needs? Furthermore, more studies need to be conducted evaluating how the utilization of screening tools work to improve health outcomes, such as pain, depression, and quality of life. As suggested by the articles reviewed, it is not enough to simply screen for symptoms, there must be standard interventions in place to meet these needs and have ways of monitoring efficacy of these interventions overtime.

Implications for Practice

Cancer does not discriminate. It invades the lives of people of all demographics, each socioeconomic class, every race, across the spectrum of ages, male and female alike. No matter the relationship, cancer leaves a mark on the lives of everyone it touches. Therefore it is essential to attend to the holistic needs of patients, families, and caregivers. The collective recommendation from the articles reviewed is to use a screening tool with satisfactory psychometric properties (reliability and validity) that is easy to administer (ideally a visual analogue scale or a numeric rating scale) in everyday clinical practice. Tool selection should be appropriate for the patient situation and setting, based on the outcome (s) being assessed (e.g. symptom burden versus quality of life), and used to monitor, evaluate, and guide treatment. The utilization of a screening tool is only the method by which assessment and evaluation is initiated. Evidence-based practice guidelines and clinical care pathways must also be in place to manage each symptom identified in a standardized way. The professional nurse is ideally situated to provide quality, accessible interdisciplinary care coordination crucial to patientcentric management of cancer care across the continuum.


It is well documented in the literature that emotional and physical distress in cancer patients is underreported and undertreated [37]. It is clear from this review; symptom assessment tools are widely used in cancer care and have proven to be useful in identifying, assessing, managing, and monitoring an array of symptoms regardless of the specific tool. The utilization of screening tools appears to be universally employed in hopes of gaining insight into a patient’s wellbeing. Once assessed, the provider can use the information to direct patient-specific care and involve palliative medicine to aid in the provision of holistic patient care.

Early identification of palliative care needs and integration of palliative services into routine oncology care is essential to adequately meet the complex care needs of patients with cancer [11,14]. When utilized early in the cancer diagnosis, the influence of palliative care improves quality of life based on patient-decided goals, enhanced coordination of care, decreased occurrence of unwanted and unnecessary medical interventions, increased life expectancy, and decreased costs [38]. It is clear that the use of an assessment/screening tool and evidence-based clinical care pathways can assist palliative care providers to accomplish these outcomes in a systematic and standardized way.



I would like to thank Marjorie Barter, Timothy Godfrey, SJ, and Kavitha Ramchandran for all the support you have given me throughout the compilation of this article. Thank you for encouraging me to be bold enough to consider publishing.


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Morris A, Ramchandran K (2016) Addressing Palliative Care Needs: The Role of Screening Tools. Ann Nurs Pract 3(2): 1046.

Received : 20 Feb 2016
Accepted : 09 Mar 2016
Published : 11 Mar 2016
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