Every year, more than 110,000 Americans are newly diagnosed with end-stage renal disease and in the overwhelming majority, maintenance dialysis therapy is initiated. However, most patients, having received no predialysis nephrology care or dietary counseling, are inadequately prepared for starting treatment; furthermore, the majority of patients do not have a functioning permanent dialysis access. Annualized mortality in the USA in the first 3 months after starting dialysis treatment is approximately 45%; this high rate is possibly in part due to inadequate preparation for renal replacement therapy. Data from the Dialysis Outcomes and Practice Patterns study suggest that similar challenges exist in many parts of the world. Implementation of strategies that mitigate the risk of adverse consequences when starting dialysis are urgently needed. In this Review we present a step-by-step approach to tackling inadequate patient preparation, which includes identifying individuals with chronic kidney disease (CKD) who are most likely to need dialysis in the future, referring patients for education, timely placement of dialysis access and timely initiation of dialysis therapy. Treatment with dialysis might not be appropriate for some patients with progressive CKD; these individuals can be optimally managed with nondialytic, maximum conservative management.