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Imminent death: clinician certainty and accuracy of prognostic predictions

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Nicola White, Fiona Reid, Victoria Vickerstaff, Priscilla Harries, Christopher Tomlinson, Patrick Stone

Original languageEnglish
JournalBMJ Supportive and Palliative Care
Early online date10 May 2019
Accepted/In press22 Apr 2019
E-pub ahead of print10 May 2019


King's Authors



To determine the accuracy of predictions of dying at different cut-off thresholds and to acknowledge the extent of clinical uncertainty. 


Secondary analysis of data from a prospective cohort study. 


An online prognostic test, accessible by eligible participants across the UK. 


Eligible participants were members of the Association of Palliative Medicine. 99/166 completed the test (60%), resulting in 1980 estimates (99 participants × 20 summaries). 

Main outcome measures: 

The probability of death occurring within 72 hours (0% certain survival-100% certain death) for 20 patient summaries. The estimates were analysed using five different thresholds: 50/50%, 40/60%, 30/70%, 20/80% and 10/90%, with percentage values between these extremes being regarded as 'indeterminate'. The positive predictive value (PPV), negative predictive value (NPV) and the number of indeterminate cases were calculated for each cut-off. Results: Using a <50% versus >50% threshold produced a PPV of 62%, an NPV of 74% and 5% indeterminate cases. When the threshold was changed to ≤10% vs ≥90%, the PPV and NPV increased to 75% and 88%, respectively, at the expense of an increase of indeterminate cases up to 62%. 


When doctors assign a very high (≥90%) or very low (≤10%) probability of imminent death, their prognostic accuracy is improved; however, this increases the number of 'indeterminate' cases. This suggests that clinical predictions may continue to have a role for routine prognostication but that other approaches (such as the use of prognostic scores) may be required for those cases where doctors' estimates are indeterminate.

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