​Choosing a Hospice: 17 Questions to Ask

Hospice is a set of services that we all may need someday – if not for ourselves, for our parents, siblings, spouses or partners. While death is not an option for any of us, we do have choices about the services we use at the end of life. Hospice is undoubtedly the best option in the last months of life because it offers a whole variety of benefits, not only to those of us who are dying, but also for those we leave behind.
How do you find the most appropriate hospice? Until hospice quality data is readily and easily available to all of us, the American Hospice Foundation offered some tips for choosing the most appropriate hospice. Answers to these questions will give you clues about quality of care and help you make an informed assessment.
What do others say about this hospice?
Get references both from people you know and from people in the field – e.g., local hospitals, nursing homes, clinicians. Ask anyone that you have connections to if they have had experience with the hospice and what their impressions are. Geriatric care managers or end-of-life doulas can be a particularly good resource, as they often hear from families about the care that was provided. Word of mouth won’t paint a full picture but information gathered from your community can provide insight.

How long has the hospice been in operation?
If it has been around for a while, that’s an indication of stability and experience.

Is the hospice Medicare-certified?
Medicare certification is essential if the patient is a Medicare beneficiary to permit reimbursement.

Is the hospice accredited, and if required, state-licensed?
Accreditation (JCAHO or CHAP) is not required and not having it doesn’t mean a hospice isn’t good, but if the hospice has it, then you know a third party has looked at the hospice’s operations and determined it meets a reasonable standard of care.

What is the expectation about the family’s role in caregiving?
See if what the hospice expects from family members is consistent with what the family is able to do.

Are there limits on treatment currently being received?
Is there anything currently being done for the patient that a hospice under consideration would not be
able to do?

Can the hospice meet your specific needs?
Mention any concerns the family or patient has about care and ask the hospice staff how they will address those concerns.

Does the hospice offer extra services beyond those required?
Some services fall in a gray area. They are not required by Medicare but may be helpful to improve the comfort of a patient. An example is radiation and/or chemotherapy for a cancer patient to reduce the size of a tumor and ameliorate pain. Some hospices would not be able to afford to do this but others with deeper pockets could.

How rapid is crisis response?
If the family needs someone to come to the home at 3 AM on a Saturday, where would that person come from? What is their average response time?

Does the hospice prepare families for the death of a patient if there is not a member of the hospice team on site?
Hospice care can be received in different types of settings, so a member of the hospice team may not always be on site immediately at the time of death. Ask the hospice what measures the hospice takes to prepare caregivers/families in the event the patient dies without a member of the team present.

What are the options for inpatient care?
Patients being cared for at home may need to go to an inpatient unit for management of complicated symptoms or to give their family respite. Facilities can vary from the hospice having its own private inpatient unit to leased beds in a hospital or nursing home. Visit the facilities if necessary to ensure that they are conveniently located and that you are comfortable with what they offer.

If the family caregiver gets really exhausted can we get respite care?
Caring for someone with a serious illness can be exhausting and, at times, challenging. In addition to home hospice care and inpatient care when symptoms prove unmanageable at home, hospices also offer “respite” care (periodic breaks for the caregiver of up to 5 days during which the patient is moved to an inpatient bed) and “continuous” nursing care at home for brief periods at the patient’s home when family caregivers are unable to manage on their own. Ask the hospice under what conditions the hospice provides these types of care and about the limitations.

Are their MDs/RNs certified in palliative care?
Not having it doesn’t mean the staff is not competent as experience counts for a lot but having this credential is an indication of specialized study in palliative medicine/nursing and is a valuable asset.

How are patient/family concerns handled?
Is there a clear process for sharing concerns with appropriate hospice staff and making sure they are addressed, including a process for escalation if the concern is not adequately addressed at lower levels? (Note: To file a complaint about hospice care, visit https://www.medicare.gov/hospicecompare/#about/contacts)
How does the hospice measure and track quality?
You are not looking for a lot of technical detail, just a response that indicates that the hospice evaluates its own performance in order to improve it.

What are your general impressions at initial contact?
What is your reaction to the people you talk to?

What kind of bereavement services does the hospice offer?
Types of grief support can vary widely and may include individual counseling, support groups, educational materials and outreach letters.

Choosing a Hospice: 17 Questions to Ask by Naomi Naierman and Marsha Nelson was originally published on the website of the American Hospice Foundation. © American Hospice Foundation. All rights reserved. Some content has been updated by Hospice Foundation of America.