INTRODUCTION: Respiratory illness is a leading cause of death worldwide, with rates that will continue to escalate into the foreseeable future. Rural residents have an increased risk of dying from some forms of respiratory disease, although little is known about the healthcare utilization or location of death for persons with advanced respiratory illness in rural settings. The purpose of this study was to examine rural-urban differences in healthcare utilization and location of death for residents of Saskatchewan, Canada, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or lung cancer in the last 12 months of life.METHODS: A retrospective cohort study was undertaken of 1098 patients who died in 2004 with a cause of death recorded as COPD or lung cancer in administrative health data from Saskatchewan Health. Decedents were classified as residents of rural/remote ( or =100 000) locations and analysis conducted using this primary variable of interest. Comparisons were made between the three groups in terms of demographic characteristics, healthcare utilization (physician visits, length of stay, hospitalizations, institutional care, home care, transitions between care settings) and location of death (hospital, long-term care [LTC] or home).RESULTS: The study population was 57% male with a mean age of 77 years (SD=11). Demographic characteristics, underlying cause of death and number of comorbid conditions were similar between urban, small urban and rural/remote groups. After adjustment for area of residence, underlying cause of death (UCOD), age group, sex, marital status, and comorbidity, urban, small urban and rural/remote residents were comparable in terms of the likelihood of: any hospitalizations, having had 5 or more transfers between settings, and dying in hospital. The proportion of home deaths in rural settings was 15.4%, and was comparable to the rate in urban settings (16.3%). Urban residents were more likely to have had 24 or more physician visits in the last year of life compared with small urban (OR=0.52, 95% CI=.37-.74) or rural/remote residents (OR=0.52, 95% CI=.40-.69), while rural/remote residents were more likely to have received any institutional LTC (OR=1.40, 95% CI=1.03-1.90) than the other groups. Hospital as a location of death was more likely for those with a UCOD of cardiovascular disease (OR=1.84, 95% CI=1.24-2.71), but was less likely for those aged 80-85 years (OR=0.46, 95% CI=.31-.69), those aged more than 85 years (OR=0.28, 95% CI=.19-.42) and those who had never married (OR=0.48, 95% CI=.29-.78). Residents of rural/remote areas were significantly less likely than those in urban or small urban settings to receive any home care (OR=0.74, 95% CI=.56-.97), any home palliative care (OR=0.29, 95% CI=.19-.45) or home physiotherapy services (OR=0.09, 95% CI=.03-.25). Rural/remote residents were, however, much more likely to receive home supportive care (OR=1.60, 95% CI=1.17-2.19) and home meal preparation (OR=2.51, 95% CI=1.44-4.39).CONCLUSIONS: While the healthcare needs of persons with respiratory illness in the last year of life were likely to be similar between locations, rural-urban differences were apparent in the number of primary care physician visits and in access to and the nature of home care services provided. Significantly fewer physician visits were made by residents of small urban or rural remote locations compared with those in urban settings, although additional research is needed to determine the reasons for this discrepancy. The likelihood of receiving home care services and professional home care services such as palliative care and physiotherapy was significantly lower for persons in rural/remote locations. The challenges experienced by rural remote regions with supporting patients in the community may have led to the increased likelihood of admission to institutional LTC noted for this group compared with residents of urban and small urban settings. The low home death rates is both urban and rural se ttings may pose particular hardship for rural families who may need to travel extensively or temporarily relocate to be closer to the hospital where their loved one is dying. Further investigation of issues related to differences in quality of care and unmet health care needs between rural and non-rural settings will strengthen the evidence base to allow equitable care at the end of life.