Accurate information on short-term prognosis is needed to help patients, their doctors, and society to make appropriate decisions concerning starting dialysis. We sought to develop a clinically applicable prognostic scoring system to aid in the prediction of death within 6 months of starting maintenance dialysis. Factors potentially predictive of early death were examined retrospectively in an inception cohort of all 325 patients starting dialysis for irreversible renal failure between 1980 and 1991 at a single tertiary care center. The overall mortality rate was 22% at 6 months. Age, cardiac failure, ischemic heart disease, dysrhythmia requiring therapy, severe peripheral vascular disease, advanced neoplasia, ventilator dependency, coma, systemic sepsis, and hepatic failure were independent, significant, prognostic indicators for early death. Multivariate models were used to suggest weights for these variables in a simplified scoring system. Patients with scores < or = 4 (N = 201) had a 6-month mortality rate of 4%, whereas those with a score higher than 9 (N = 21) had a 6-month mortality rate of 100%. Thus, when age and multiple comorbid illnesses were taken into account, it was possible to identify with 100% accuracy 29% of the patients who died within 6 months of starting maintenance dialysis therapy, accounting for 6.5% of the cohort studied. A larger prospective study is warranted to validate this scoring system.