How accurate is the 'Surprise Question' at identifying patients at the end of life? A systematic review and meta-analysis

BMC Med. 2017 Aug 2;15(1):139. doi: 10.1186/s12916-017-0907-4.


Background: Clinicians are inaccurate at predicting survival. The 'Surprise Question' (SQ) is a screening tool that aims to identify people nearing the end of life. Potentially, its routine use could help identify patients who might benefit from palliative care services. The objective was to assess the accuracy of the SQ by time scale, clinician, and speciality.

Methods: Searches were completed on Medline, Embase, CINAHL, AMED, Science Citation Index, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Open Grey literature (all from inception to November 2016). Studies were included if they reported the SQ and were written in English. Quality was assessed using the Newcastle-Ottawa Scale.

Results: A total of 26 papers were included in the review, of which 22 reported a complete data set. There were 25,718 predictions of survival made in response to the SQ. The c-statistic of the SQ ranged from 0.512 to 0.822. In the meta-analysis, the pooled accuracy level was 74.8% (95% CI 68.6-80.5). There was a negligible difference in timescale of the SQ. Doctors appeared to be more accurate than nurses at recognising people in the last year of life (c-statistic = 0.735 vs. 0.688), and the SQ seemed more accurate in an oncology setting 76.1% (95% CI 69.7-86.3).

Conclusions: There was a wide degree of accuracy, from poor to reasonable, reported across studies using the SQ. Further work investigating how the SQ could be used alongside other prognostic tools to increase the identification of people who would benefit from palliative care is warranted.

Trial registration: PROSPERO CRD42016046564 .

Keywords: Accuracy; End of life; Palliative care; Prognosis; Surprise question; Survival.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Death
  • Humans
  • Physicians
  • Prognosis
  • Terminal Care*