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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Corticosteroid prescribing in palliative care settings: a retrospective analysis in New Zealand

Anne Denton and John Shaw*

Author Affiliations

School of Pharmacy, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, The University of Auckland, Building 505, 85 Park Road, Auckland, Grafton, New Zealand

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BMC Palliative Care 2014, 13:7  doi:10.1186/1472-684X-13-7

Published: 8 March 2014



Corticosteroids are a potent group of medicines, with many adverse effects, that are widely prescribed in palliative care for both specific and non-specific indications. The aim of this study was to document current patterns of corticosteroid prescribing in New Zealand palliative care settings and to reflect on whether they were in line with international experience.


A retrospective review of inpatient use of corticosteroids was undertaken in a sample of six New Zealand hospices. Data were collected on numbers of patients prescribed corticosteroids, indications for use, choice of agent, doses and dosage changes, duration of course, incidence of adverse effects, method of stopping, use of guidelines, and processes for monitoring and review.


The case notes of 1179 inpatients were reviewed and 768 patients (65.1%) had received at least one course of corticosteroids. There was a marked consistency in the proportion of patients prescribed corticosteroids among the sample hospices (61-69%). Detailed information was recorded for a sample of 260 patients. Corticosteroids were prescribed most commonly for non-specific reasons (40.4% of prescribing events), followed by neurological (25.3%) and soft tissue infiltration symptoms (14.4%). The agent of choice was dexamethasone with a dose range of 1 mg to 40 mg and a median dose of 8 mg. The median course duration for all corticosteroid prescribing events was 29 days. Abrupt stopping occurred in 72 (23.2%) cases, of these 35 (49%) had been on a course of corticosteroids for more than three weeks. Guidelines were only available in one hospice. Monitoring and review was documented in 135 (52%) of cases, and adverse effects were recorded in 82 (32%); these are likely to be underestimates due to a high level of non-recording.


This New Zealand study showed that corticosteroids are widely prescribed in palliative care, most commonly for non-specific indications. These findings are consistent with the international literature in this area and this large, multi-site study adds weight to the findings and the need for ongoing discussion about the place of these drugs in palliative care.

Palliative care; Hospices; Corticosteroids; Prescribing; Evidence-based medicine; Guidelines