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A scoping research literature review to assess the state of existing evidence on the “bad” death

  • Donna M. Wilson (a1) and Jessica A. Hewitt (a2)



A scoping research literature review on “bad death” was undertaken to assess the overall state of the science on this topic and to determine what evidence exists on how often bad deaths occur, what contributes to or causes a bad death, and what the outcomes and consequences of bad deaths are.


A search for English-language research articles was conducted in late 2016, with 25 articles identified and all retained for examination, as is expected with scoping reviews.


Only 3 of the 25 articles provided incidence information, specifying that 7.8 to 23% of deaths were bad and that bad deaths were more likely to occur in hospitals than in community-care settings. Many different factors were associated with bad deaths, with unrelieved pain being the most commonly identified. Half of the studies provided information on the possible consequences or outcomes of bad deaths, such as palliative care not being initiated, interpersonal and team conflict, and long-lasting negative community effects.

Significance of results:

This review identified a relatively small number of research articles that focused in whole or in part on bad deaths. Although the reasons why people consider a death to be bad may be highly individualized and yet also socioculturally based, unrelieved pain is a commonly held reason for bad deaths. Although bad and good deaths may have some opposing causative factors, this literature review revealed some salient bad death attributes, ones that could be avoided to prevent bad deaths from occurring. A routine assessment to allow planning so as to avoid bad deaths and enhance the probability of good deaths is suggested.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Donna M. Wilson, Faculty of Nursing, Third Floor ECHA Building, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 1C9, Canada. E-mail:


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