A qualitative study exploring use of the surprise question in the care of older people: perceptions of general practitioners and challenges for practice

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The question “Would you be surprised if this patient were to die in the next 6–12 months?” has been included in UK palliative care guidance with the aim of supporting the identification and care planning of those nearing the end of life. Little is known about how the surprise question is utilised in the care of older people within primary care. This study sought to explore the perceptions and experiences of general practitioners (GPs).


Semistructured interviews were conducted with 12 GPs. Each interview reflected on the care of two people, aged 80 years or older, selected by the GP as possibly being in the last year of life. Analysis followed a grounded theory approach within a framework of interpretive thematic analysis.


Data discussing 22 clinical cases revealed the difficulties experienced by GPs when assessing prognosis for older people with non-malignant conditions, despite their recognition of multiple mortality risk factors and high symptom burden. GPs did not appear to include the surprise question within their usual practice and expressed concerns regarding its use to facilitate discussion of advance care plans. These concerns highlighted the subjective nature of the surprise question and potential barriers to conducting discussions of preferences for future care.


Greater understanding is needed as to the difficulties experienced by GPs when assessing prognosis in older people. We propose a thematic model which could support GPs by focusing assessment on the supportive and palliative care needs of older people nearing the end of life.

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