Using a Modified Surprise Question as a Tool to Improve Primary Palliative Care in a Neurocritical Care Unit

Published:November 24, 2020DOI:


      Specialty palliative care is a limited resource. The surprise question (“Would you be surprised if this patient died within the next 12 months?”) is a screening tool for clinicians to identify people nearing the end of life. The researchers used a modified surprise question (MSQ) to improve primary palliative care in a neurocritical care unit.


      A palliative care physician attended interdisciplinary rounds up to three days a week and asked the primary neurocritical care team, for each patient admitted in the previous 24 hours, the MSQ: “Would you be surprised if this patient died during this hospital stay?” If the response was “No,” the unit social worker identified the patient's surrogate decision maker (SDM), and the primary team was encouraged to conduct a goals of care (GOC) conversation. The frequency of SDM documentation, occurrence and timing of GOC conversations, and palliative care and hospice consultations were measured for the baseline six months before the intervention, and six months after.


      Among 350 patients admitted to the neurocritical care unit during the study, the age, gender, prehospitalization presence of advance directives, and mortality were comparable between the baseline (n = 173) and intervention (n = 177) periods. Compared to the baseline period, there was a higher frequency during the intervention period of documentation of SDM (31.8% vs. 54.2%, p = 0.00002), all GOC conversations (35.3% vs. 53.1%, p = 0.008), GOC conversations conducted by the primary team (27.2% vs. 47.5%, p = 0.00009), palliative care consultations (11.6% vs. 23.2%, p = 0.004), and hospice consultations (2.3% vs. 9.6%, p = 0.004).


      The MSQ can be used as a tool to identify the risk of mortality, facilitate palliative care delivered by the primary team, and improve end-of-life care.
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