OBJECTIVES : The objectives of this study were to assess clinicians' knowledge about evaluating possible cardiac arrest patients and recognising cardiac arrest, to assess clinicians' knowledge about appropriate decisions and actions during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and to determine which advanced life support courses had been undertaken and whether they were still valid. DESIGN : This was a descriptive, cross-sectional survey. SETTING AND SUBJECT : The subjects were doctors who worked in clinical disciplines at a South African tertiary hospital. Using convenience sampling, doctors from each clinical discipline were invited to participate. Those who consented were included, until a sample of 100 was obtained. OUTCOME MEASURES : A self-administered, closed-ended questionnaire that was based on the course content of the American Heart Association (AHA) Basic Life Support (BLS) course was used. The minimum score of 84%, benchmarked against the AHA BLS course, was used to define adequate knowledge. RESULTS : One hundred doctors participated. None of the participants showed adequate knowledge. The mean total score was 35.1% (95% CI: 31.7; 38.6). The mean adult CPR score was 40.6% (95% CI: 37.4; 45.6). The mean paediatric CPR score was 36.6% (95% CI: 37.0; 41.6). CONCLUSION : The participants' knowledge of resuscitation was poor. This raises considerable concern about the effectiveness of the CPR that is performed. This study highlights the need for adequate training of clinicians in the skill of resuscitation and the importance of developing appropriate CPR training programmes that are accessible, innovative and inexpensive.