With increasing emphasis on the earlier detection and management of chronic kidney disease (CKD), estimation of the glomerular filtration rate (GFR) has assumed greater importance. It is accepted that use of serum creatinine concentration alone as a marker of kidney function is inadequate; in particular, it has a poor sensitivity for detecting CKD. International recommendations favour the reporting of creatinine-based estimates of GFR using formulae which also take into account age, gender and other variables that affect the relationship between serum creatinine and GFR: in particular, the four-variable formula derived from the Modification of Diet in Renal Disease study (4-v MDRD) is increasingly being used. We have reviewed the literature supporting the use of this formula compared with the well-established Cockcroft and Gault formula. Overall, evidence supports the use of the 4-v MDRD formula as an improved estimate of GFR in people with moderate/advanced CKD. Neither formula performs well in people with normal and mildly reduced kidney function. However, there remain significant problems with this approach and areas where further research is required. In particular, the widespread adoption of estimated GFR reporting has refocused attention on the limitations of creatinine measurement and highlighted clinical situations in which the formulae are inadequate.