Repurposing Medications for Hospice/Palliative Care Symptom Control Is No Longer Sufficient: A Manifesto for Change

David C. Currow, Amy P. Abernethy, Marie Fallon, Russell K. Portenoy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The World Health Organization essential medications list for hospice/palliative care reflects that, with the judicious use of currently available medications, the majority of symptoms can be lessened, and some controlled completely. Even with optimal use of current medications, symptom control is still unacceptable for many people. Currently available medications offer great benefit to a minority of patients, some benefit to an additional group, and no benefit or harms to others. In symptom control, development of new drugs is advancing at a glacial pace, contrasting to the rapid advances seen in many other disciplines. Specialists in palliative care should agree on several principles consequently: 1) Access to symptom-control drugs codified in the World Health Organization Essential Medicines list deserves the strongest support from national policies and professional guidelines, especially in resource-challenged countries. 2) The optimal use of currently available symptom-control drugs cannot yield acceptably high rates of net benefits. 3) There is a compelling need to identify patient subgroups that are likely to benefit from available medications and provide rigorous empirical support for indications, dosing, and route of administration for clinical practice. 4) New therapies are needed requiring an accelerated effort to investigate further the pathophysiology, neurobiology, and pharmacogenetics of distressing symptoms, and factors contributing to variations in drug response. This development requires a lengthy lead time. 5) Smarter ways to promote new knowledge into practice are needed as no drug will be suitable for all patients. We need to improve clinical characterization and biomarker technology to bring the best drugs to the right patients every time.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)533-539
JournalJournal of Pain and Symptom Management
Issue number3
Early online date30 Dec 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017


  • Symptom control
  • hospice/palliative care
  • pharmacological treatment
  • investigational agents
  • pharmacogenetics


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