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01.12.2018 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2018 Open Access

BMC Palliative Care 1/2018

Adding a second surprise question triggers general practitioners to increase the thoroughness of palliative care planning: results of a pilot RCT with case vignettes

BMC Palliative Care > Ausgabe 1/2018
F. Weijers, C. Veldhoven, C. Verhagen, K. Vissers, Y. Engels
Wichtige Hinweise

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (https://​doi.​org/​10.​1186/​s12904-018-0312-6) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.



In our aging society, palliative care should be a standard component of health care. However, currently it is only provided to a small proportion of patients, mostly to those with cancer, and restricted to the terminal phase. Many general practitioners (GPs) say that one of their most significant challenges is to assess the right moment to start anticipatory palliative care. The “Surprise Question” (SQ1: “Would I be surprised if this patient were to die in the next 12 months”?), if answered with “no”, is an easy tool to apply in identifying patients in need of palliative care. However, this tool has a low specificity. Therefore, the aim of our pilot study was to determine if adding a second, more specific “Surprise Question” (SQ2: “Would I be surprised if this patient is still alive after 12 months”?) in case SQ1 is answered in the negative, prompts GPs to plan for anticipatory palliative care.


By randomization, 28 GPs in the south-eastern part of the Netherlands were allocated to three different groups. They all received a questionnaire with four vignettes, respectively representing patients with advanced organ failure (A), end stage cancer (B), frailty (C), and recently diagnosed cancer (D). GPs in the first group did not receive additional information, the second group received SQ1 after each vignette, and the third group received SQ1 and SQ2 after each vignette. We rated their answers based on essential components of palliative care (here called RADIANT score).


GPs in group 3 gave higher RADIANT scores to those vignettes in which they would be surprised if the patients were still alive after 12 months. In all groups, vignette B had the highest mean RADIANT score, followed by vignettes A and C, and the lowest on vignette D. Seventy-one percent of GPs in groups 2 and 3 considered SQ1 a helpful tool, and 75% considered SQ2 helpful.


This innovative pilot study indicates that the majority of GPs think SQ2 is a helpful additional tool. The combination of the two “Surprise Questions” encourages GPs to make more specific plans for anticipatory palliative care.
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