Many patients at the end of life receive care that is inappropriate or futile and, if given the opportunity to discuss their care preferences well ahead of death, may well have chosen to forgo such care. Advance care planning (ACP) is a process of making decisions about future health care for patients in consultation with clinicians, family members and important others, and to safeguard such decisions if patients were to lose decisional capacity. Although ACP has existed as an idea for decades, acceptance and operationalisation of ACP within routine practice has been slow, despite evidence of its benefits. The chief barriers have been social and personal taboos about discussing the dying process, avoidance by medical professionals of responsibility for initiating, coordinating and documenting discussions about ACP, absence of robust and standardised procedures for recording and retrieving ACP documents across multiple care settings, and legal and ethical concerns about the validity of such documents. For ACP to become part of mainstream patient-centred care, accountable clinicians working in primary care, hospitals and nursing homes must effectively educate colleagues and patients about the purpose and mechanics of ACP, mandate ACP for all eligible patients, document ACP in accessible formats that enable patient wishes to accurately guide clinical management, devise methods for reviewing ACP decisions when clinically appropriate, and evaluate congruence between expressed patient wishes and actual care received. Public awareness campaigns coupled with implementation of ACP programs sponsored by collaborations between hospital and health services, Medicare locals and residential care facilities will be needed in making system-wide ACP a reality.