Palliative day care has expanded rapidly in the recent years, but the types of care available vary. To understand more about the different models of day care we conducted a questionnaire survey of the 43-day care centres in North and South Thames Regions in England (total population 13.75 million). The questionnaire covered: management, staffing and organizational policies; the numbers, types and reasons for referral; and the services and care provided. Forty (93%) centres responded. Centres had operated for between 1 and 16 years, mean 8 years. A total of 2268 day care places (mean per centre, 57) were available per week--with an estimated 1.77 places per 10,000 population. Twenty centres had never had a waiting list or had to prioritize patients; 30 had a discharge policy. The mean time the longest patient had been attending was 4.5 years, range 1-12 years. There were a total of 3627 new referrals per year or 3.06 per 10,000 population. Of the 2054 patients recorded by day care centres during a week of detailed monitoring, 1850 (90%) had cancer and 204 had other diseases--most commonly HIV or AIDS, motor neurone disease or stroke. Thirty-four centres were managed by nurses, two by social work or social service professionals, and the remainder by people with other backgrounds. Most units had doctors, nurses, chaplains, managers, aromatherapists and hairdressers, but occupational therapists, social workers, chiropodists, dietitians and music and art therapists were much more varied, as was whether these posts were paid. The most common activities were: review of patients' symptoms or needs, monitoring symptoms, bathing, wound care, physiotherapy, hairdressing and aromatherapy. Centres describing themselves as more or mostly social were less likely to undertake daily assessment of new symptoms and wound care (chi-squared 13.0, 10.1, respectively, df 4, P < 0.05). However, we found no significant differences between centres describing themselves as more medical or more social in reported levels of staffing, who was in charge, funding or most activities. The findings suggest that there are core activities offered in palliative day care, but also variations in medical assessments, nurse-led clinics, trips, art and music therapy, and artistic activities.