We compared the performance of two tools to help general practitioners (GPs) identify patients in need of palliative care: the Surprise Question (SQ) and the Supportive and Palliative Care Indicators Tool (SPICT). Prospective cohort study in two general practices in the Netherlands with a size of 3640 patients. At the start of the study the GPs selected patients by heart using the SQ. The SPICT was translated into a digital search in electronic patient records. The GPs then selected patients from the list thus created. Afterwards the GPs were interviewed about their experiences. The following year a record was kept of all the patients deceased in both practices. We analysed the characteristics of the patients selected and the deceased. We calculated the performance characteristics concerning predicting 1-year mortality. The sensitivity of the SQ was 50%, of the SPICT 57%; the specificity 99% and 98%. When analysing the deceased (n = 36), 10 died relatively suddenly and arguably could not be identified. Leaving out these 10, the sensitivity of the SQ became 69%, of the SPICT 81%. The GPs found the performance of the digital search quite time consuming. The SPICT seems to be better in identifying patients in need of palliative care than the SQ. It is also more time consuming than the SQ. However, as the digital search can be performed more easily after it has been done for the first time, initial investments can repay themselves. © The Author(s) 2020. Published by Oxford University Press.