Delirium in terminal cancer inpatients: short-term survival and missed diagnosis

Oscar Rodríguez-Mayoral, Francisco Reyes-Madrigal, Silvia Allende-Pérez, Emma Verástegui



Introduction. Delirium is a neurocognitive disorder, frequently present in advanced cancer patients. It morbidity, mortality, health expenditure, and causes distress to patients, family members, and health care professionals. Despite its impact, the disorder is still underdiagnosed, and consequently, mistreated.

Objective. To describe the prevalence, clinical features, impact on the survival and percentage of missed diagnosis of delirium, in palliative care inpatients treated in a tertiary center.

Method. We conducted a prospective study, including all the inpatients referred to the Palliative Care Service of the Instituto Nacional de Cancerología in Mexico, from August, 2014 to March, 2015. As a first step, we collected clinical and sociodemographic data, and determined the presence/absence of delirium, using the Confusion Assessment Method. Then, we reviewed the clinical file to determine if a previous delirium diagnosis was stablished by the primary referring team. Finally, thirty days after the initial assessment, we contacted the patients in order to know their survival status (alive/death). We performed a survival analysis to compare mortality among patients with delirium/non-delirium, and reported the percentage of delirium missed diagnosis.

Results. We included 174 patients, 40.2% were diagnosed with delirium. Mean survival time in patients with delirium was 11 days, while in non-delirium patient’s mean survival time was 21 days; Log Rank 23.50, p < .001. We found a 73% of missed delirium diagnosis by the primary referring team.

Discussion and conclusion. Prevalence of delirium in this population is similar to that observed in other palliative care populations. Also, delirium is the principal determinant of short-term mortality, and it is frequently underdiagnosed. Preventive strategies and early identification could help to reduce its burden.


Advanced cancer; palliative care; delirium; missed delirium; survival

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