Defining Serious Illness Among Adult Surgical Patients

Katherine C. Lee, Anne M. Walling, Steven S. Senglaub, Amy S. Kelley, Zara Cooper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Context: Palliative care (PC) for seriously ill surgical patients, including aligning treatments with patients' goals and managing symptoms, is associated with improved patient-oriented outcomes and decreased health care utilization. However, efforts to integrate PC alongside restorative surgical care are limited by the lack of a consensus definition for serious illness in the perioperative context. Objectives: The objectives of this study were to develop a serious illness definition for surgical patients and identify a denominator for quality measurement efforts. Methods: We developed a preliminary definition including a set of criteria for 11 conditions and health states. Using the RAND-UCLA Appropriateness Method, a 12-member expert advisory panel rated the criteria for each condition and health state twice, once after an in-person moderated discussion, for validity (primary outcome) and feasibility of measurement. Results: All panelists completed both rounds of rating. All 11 conditions and health states defining serious illness for surgical patients were rated as valid. During the in-person discussion, panelists refined and narrowed criteria for two conditions (vulnerable elder, heart failure). The final definition included the following 11 conditions and health states: vulnerable elder, heart failure, advanced cancer, oxygen-dependent pulmonary disease, cirrhosis, end-stage renal disease, dementia, critical trauma, frailty, nursing home residency, and American Society of Anesthesiology Risk Score IV-V. Conclusion: We identified a consensus definition for serious illness in surgery. Opportunities remain in measuring the prevalence, identifying health trajectories, and developing screening criteria to integrate PC with restorative surgical care.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)844-850.e2
JournalJournal of Pain and Symptom Management
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 2019


  • Delphi methods
  • RAND-UCLA Appropriateness Method
  • Surgical palliative care
  • quality improvement
  • quality measurement
  • serious illness


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