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Last offices neglected in over half of hospital deaths


A dearth of training and guidance means nurses are failing to follow “last offices”, the simple procedures for treating dead patients with dignity and respect, a Nursing Times investigation has found.

In more than half of hospital deaths, nurses neglect to follow procedures such as straightening patients’ limbs or closing their eyes and mouth before rigour mortis sets in, according to evidence gathered by hospital trusts and shared with Nursing Times.

Such failures can mean patients have tubes and lines wrongly removed or are left with loose dressings, resulting in fluid leaks which can be distressing for relatives.

On occasions patients are not cleaned properly or are left with marks on their bodies.

Audits of how last offices are performed are rare. But Nursing Times has seen details of an audit at North Tees and Hartlepool Foundation Trust, carried out in January last year, which found problems in the way 47 out of 80 deceased patients were dealt with.

The most common error – found in 15 per cent of cases – was leakage from unsecured dressings.

The issues uncovered by North Tees and Hartlepool have been found at other trusts.

A recent audit at North Bristol Trust found problems with more than 70 per cent of the 43 deceased patients it audited. The most common being mouths left open.

Sam Goss, mortuary manager for Salisbury Foundation Trust’s hospital and community palliative care team, told Nursing Times an unpublished audit at his trust had found similar results, with the most common problems being missing identification tags and the deceased’s mouth being left open.

Karen Hill, acuity practice development matron at Southampton University Hospitals Trust, said her trust had likewise uncovered problems with the treatment of deceased patients.

Each of these trusts has made attempts to improve training and the way deceased patients are treated, but specialist nurses and mortuary technicians told Nursing Times they believe it is a problem across the country.

Mr Goss said the lack of clear guidance contributed to the problem.

“You find that in many trusts it is a case of word of mouth,” he said. “There is no national guidance. Senior nurses say ‘this is the way you should do it’ but there is never solid guidance for nurses and they can be extremely worried about what they can or cannot do.”

Ms Hill said newly qualified nurses sometimes had very little experience dealing with dead patients. She said: “If they haven’t been exposed to patients dying in their training then I think trusts should be obliged to provide that information to staff when they start in the organisation.”

Fiona Murphy, lead bereavement and donor coordinator at the Royal Bolton Hospital, agreed. She said: “Nurses require training because they are frightened of increasing a family’s grief, and they don’t want to do that.

“We have to break down the taboos around death and dying. Nearly sixty per cent of the population die in the acute hospital setting. We are duty bound to get this part of our care right. Last offices is fundamentally important.”

Failure to perform them properly was “undignified”, she said.

 “This is about giving high quality care until the end,” she said. “Death is not always a failure, people have to be allowed to die with dignity and it is our duty to get it right. We have to provide high quality bereavement care that we would expect [for] ourselves.”

A repeat of the North Tees audit this year, following a programme of nurse training, found minor problems with just five patients – indicating that although the problems cause serious distress for relatives they can be easily avoided if given sufficient attention.

North Tees mortuary manager Michelle Lancaster said the trust’s dramatic improvement had been achieved by teaching nurses what they were meant to do, encouraging them to talk about the process and having them visit the mortuary.

Southampton has also reported no mortuary complaints since the last offices policy was introduced six months ago.

What should last offices involve?

  • If the patient is not catheterised, apply gentle pressure over the bladder to allow it to drain
  • Remove and record jewellery and any personal items, unless requested or advised otherwise
  • Attend to hygiene needs, particularly hair, nail and mouth care
  • Replace dentures
  • Attempt to close the eyes, using a small piece of clinical tape if required
  • Attach identification labels
  • Dress the patient in a gown/shroud or own clothes, as required
  • Place an incontinence pad under the buttocks to contain any soiling


Does your trust have guidance on last offices?

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Readers' comments (27)

  • I have read through your "practical procedures" on last offices and it doesn't mention tubes or closing the mouth or straightening the limbs. It seems there are different policies everywhere

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  • my 1st experience of death and last offices was 30 years ago when i was just 18 and working in a care home as a domestic and what i observed has stayed with me when i started at other care homes followed by nursing in hospitals as a hca and now finally as a qualified nurse.i have done many last offices with HCAs and students since then, treating all my patients with dignity and respect, talking to them whilst i clean them and place their own night attire on, cleaning their mouths and placing their dentures inside.this has been one of my favourite parts of nursing and one that i have never and will never hurry.

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  • I have beenn a mental health nurse for 18 yrs and have performed last offices on several occassions.On the last occassion on a dementia care ward, the daughterof the patient was with him when he died.This was 3 weeks after my own father had died.I asked the daughter if she wanted to help me,which she did.I told her I was performing the last offices in the same wat I would have if I had been able to do it for my father.She washed his face and hands,shaved him,combed his hair and helped me dress him.She wrote to me afterwards thanking me for this and said she would always remember the care that I gave her father after he died

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  • i have been nursing for nearly 30 years and have seen changes in the way last offices are carried out.i try always to think of the cultural differences people would want .sometimes though it is hard to put the dentures in after death
    i hate the term last offices why not something like last respects ?

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  • I am currently a student nurse, due to qualify in September. I can only speak for myself, but I was given a 4 hour session (theory and practical session) on the theory behind and the correct ways to perform last offices. I found it very useful as I myself had never seen or dealt with a dead person before as I went straight into nursing after college.
    I just assumed that ALL universities would include this into their curriculum; clearly i assumed wrong.
    But I believe it should be taught to students and all care staff within hospitals, not only so they are competent and confident to carry out this honourable task for the patient, but also to ensure that the patient recieves the dignity they deserve!. :)

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  • I work for a cancer charity and do night shifts. My first experience of death was on my very first shift working alone. Although i knew this was the nature of my job, i was very unprepared as i remember not being given clear training as what was expected of me when preforming the last offices on a patient that dies in our care. Now eight years later i find it an honour to be present and give care in the last moments before and after death. By following a protocol of what we are expected to do makes it a more dignified death for the patient as well as relatives/carers being present by ether explaining what you are going to do or by even asking if they wish to take part in the one last act of care they can give to a loved one. I have found that given the chance they are happy to participate.

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  • When I perform last offices I treat my patients exactly the same as I did when they were alive-talk to them and handle them gently ect, but the article states it is not acceptable for the mouth to be left open, in my experience the mouth rarely stays shut. Surely they are not suggesting we tied a bandage under the chin and round the head like older colleagues have told me they used to do-this seems more undignified to me than the mouth being open

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  • As a Healthcare assistant I can honestly say that I have not seen a trained nurse do last offices in the last five years!!! (and I do work full time) teaching of last offices to students and new HCA's also comes down to the HCA.

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  • Agree with above - thank goodness for our wonderful HCAs. The ward I work on often operates with only 2 members of staff - it is an acute surgical ward so if we have a death we are torn between "laying the patient out with dignity and respect" which I believe should not be rushed, whilst tending to the acute post op needs of the other patients. It is an impossible situation. Please, somebody up there with a blue dress and a clipboard, let us have more staff on the shop floor so we can deliver.

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    when my mother in -law died my sister in Law and myself did last offices ,both being nurses ,it was an honour and a privilege.

    As a trainee nurse in the seventies we did tie of the penis as i said in my last comment ,it was how they did it the. That was what we were taught to do. I seem to remember that i also had to attend a post mortem.

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