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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

End of life care in sub-Saharan Africa: a systematic review of the qualitative literature

Marjolein Gysels1, Christopher Pell1, Lianne Straus1 and Robert Pool12*

Author Affiliations

1 Barcelona Centre for International Health Research (CRESIB, Hospital Clínic-Universitat de Barcelona), C/Rosselló 132 SA 1ª, Barcelona 08036, Spain

2 Centre for Global Health and Inequality, University of Amsterdam, Spui 21 1012 WX Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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BMC Palliative Care 2011, 10:6  doi:10.1186/1472-684X-10-6

Published: 9 March 2011

Abstract

Background

End of life (EoL) care in sub-Saharan Africa still lacks the sound evidence-base needed for the development of effective, appropriate service provision. It is essential to make evidence from all types of research available alongside clinical and health service data, to ensure that EoL care is ethical and culturally appropriate. This article aims to synthesize qualitative research on EoL care in sub-Saharan Africa to inform policy, practice and further research. It seeks to identify areas of existing research; describe findings specifically relevant to the African context; and, identify areas lacking evidence.

Methods

Relevant literature was identified through eight electronic databases: AMED, British Nursing Index & Archive, CINAHL, EMBASE, IBSS, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and the Social Sciences Citation Index; and hand searches. Inclusion criteria were: published qualitative or mixed-method studies in sub-Saharan Africa, about EoL care. Study quality was assessed using a standard grading scale. Relevant data including findings and practice recommendations were extracted and compared in tabular format.

Results

Of the 407 articles initially identified, 51 were included in the qualitative synthesis. Nineteen came from South Africa and the majority (38) focused on HIV/AIDS. Nine dealt with multiple or unspecified conditions and four were about cancer. Study respondents included health professionals, informal carers, patients, community members and bereaved relatives. Informal carers were typically women, the elderly and children, providing total care in the home, and lacking support from professionals or the extended family. Twenty studies focused on home-based care, describing how programmes function in practice and what is needed to make them effective. Patients and carers were reported to prefer institutional care but this needs to be understood in context. Studies focusing on culture discussed good and bad death, culture-specific approaches to symptoms and illness, and the bereavement process.

Conclusions

The data support or complement the findings from quantitative research. The review prompts a reconsideration of the assumption that in Africa the extended family care for the sick, and that people prefer home-based care. The review identifies areas relevant for a research agenda on socio-cultural issues at the EoL in sub-Saharan Africa.