Reliability and Utility of the Surprise Question in CKD Stages 4 to 5

Am J Kidney Dis. 2017 Jul;70(1):93-101. doi: 10.1053/j.ajkd.2016.11.025. Epub 2017 Feb 15.


Background: Prognostic uncertainty is one barrier to engaging in goals-of-care discussions in chronic kidney disease (CKD). The surprise question ("Would you be surprised if this patient died in the next 12 months?") is a tool to assist in prognostication. However, it has not been studied in non-dialysis-dependent CKD and its reliability is unknown.

Study design: Observational study.

Setting & participants: 388 patients at least 60 years of age with non-dialysis-dependent CKD stages 4 to 5 who were seen at an outpatient nephrology clinic.

Predictor: Trinary (ie, Yes, Neutral, or No) and binary (Yes or No) surprise question response.

Outcomes: Mortality, test-retest reliability, and blinded inter-rater reliability.

Measurements: Baseline comorbid conditions, Charlson Comorbidity Index, cause of CKD, and baseline laboratory values (ie, serum creatinine/estimated glomerular filtration rate, serum albumin, and hemoglobin).

Results: Median patient age was 71 years with median follow-up of 1.4 years, during which time 52 (13%) patients died. Using the trinary surprise question, providers responded Yes, Neutral, and No for 202 (52%), 80 (21%), and 106 (27%) patients, respectively. About 5%, 15%, and 27% of Yes, Neutral, and No patients died, respectively (P<0.001). Trinary surprise question inter-rater reliability was 0.58 (95% CI, 0.42-0.72), and test-retest reliability was 0.63 (95% CI, 0.54-0.72). The trinary surprise question No response had sensitivity and specificity of 55% and 76%, respectively (95% CIs, 38%-71% and 71%-80%, respectively). The binary surprise question had sensitivity of 66% (95% CI, 49%-80%; P=0.3 vs trinary), but lower specificity of 68% (95% CI, 63%-73%; P=0.02 vs trinary).

Limitations: Single center, small number of deaths.

Conclusions: The surprise question associates with mortality in CKD stages 4 to 5 and demonstrates moderate to good reliability. Future studies should examine how best to deploy the surprise question to facilitate advance care planning in advanced non-dialysis-dependent CKD.

Keywords: Chronic kidney disease (CKD); advance planning; advanced CKD; clinical prediction; clinical trajectory; end-of-life preferences; geriatric; goals-of-care discussions; mortality; mortality risk prediction; nephrology provider; non–dialysis-dependent CKD; prognostication; reliability; subjective health measure; survival.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prognosis
  • Prospective Studies
  • Renal Insufficiency, Chronic / diagnosis
  • Renal Insufficiency, Chronic / mortality*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Surveys and Questionnaires