Palliative day care is an expanding service which remains under-researched. Study designs need to be developed to evaluate the costs and outcomes of the service in ways which are meaningful to patients, clinicians and policy-makers. At the same time, these must be open to the same criteria for rigour and reliability as techniques used elsewhere in health and social service evaluation. To this end, a developmental stage of exploratory research was undertaken at the start of a major multicentre trial of palliative day care to meet two clear aims: to understand more about the structure and processes of palliative day care, and to identify ways in which service outcomes could be evaluated and measured. In-depth observations at five palliative day care centres were undertaken across one health region. This provided a better understanding of the models, outcomes and processes of palliative day care in five different environments. Centres represented the spectrum of medical and social care models and findings were analysed using an organisational systems approach. The findings showed that, despite the lack of a national strategic approach to developing the service, the centres all provided a core set of services which were broadly similar. However, differences in philosophy, ownership, and organisation affected how the services were provided and may have an impact on the costs of the service. The study has provided a more in-depth understanding of palliative day care services in order to design an effective research strategy for evaluating a service which crosses the boundaries of health and social care.
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