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Open Access Research article

Hospital based palliative care in sub-Saharan Africa; a six month review from Malawi

Julia B Tapsfield1 and M Jane Bates2

Author affiliations

1 Estcourt Provincial Hospital, Old Main Road, Estcourt 3310, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

2 Tiyanjane Clinic, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, PO Box 95, Blantyre, Malawi

Citation and License

BMC Palliative Care 2011, 10:12  doi:10.1186/1472-684X-10-12

Published: 9 July 2011



The World Health Organisation recognises the importance of palliative care in an African setting. Despite this services are often patchy and inconsistent, and many operate at health centre and/or community level. Few reports from hospital based palliative care services in sub-Saharan Africa exist in the current literature. As part of its activities Tiyanjane Clinic has been providing hospital based palliative care to patients at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, a large government tertiary referral institution, in the Southern region of Malawi since 2003, caring for patients with HIV, cancer and other non-malignant palliative diagnoses.


A retrospective review of case notes for all in-patients seen by Tiyanjane Clinic over a six month period (April-Sept 2009) was undertaken.


A total of 177 patients were seen, for whom 137 case notes were available (77%). 58% of patients were male, 42% female. The average age of patients was 39.1 years (range 15-92 years). 54% of patients were HIV positive, with 34% on ARV drugs at the time of care. 42% of patients had HIV related diagnoses, including AIDS defining malignancies, 48% had (non AIDS related) cancers and 9% had other palliative diagnoses. The mean age of patients with HIV related diagnoses was 34 years, for cancer patients it was 48 years. Pain was the most commonly reported symptom (74%), with 56% of patients requiring oral morphine. The mean daily dose of morphine was 30 mg/day (range 9-100 mg). 65% of patients were discharged home, 26% of patients died during admission.


The palliative care population in this setting is relatively young, especially among patients with HIV related diagnoses. HIV and cancer are the main diagnostic groups. Pain is the most commonly reported symptom, with oral morphine frequently required. Health workers require access to and knowledge of oral morphine in order to provide appropriate assistance to patients under their care.