The risk of cardiac events in patients undergoing major noncardiac surgery is dependent on their clinical characteristics and the results of stress testing. The purpose of this study was to develop a composite approach to defining levels of risk and to examine whether different approaches to prophylaxis influenced this prediction of outcome. One hundred forty-five consecutive patients (aged 68 +/- 9 years, 79 men) with >1 clinical risk variable were studied with standard dobutamine-atropine stress echo before major noncardiac surgery. Risk levels were stratified according to the presence of ischemia (new or worsening wall motion abnormality), ischemic threshold (heart rate at development of ischemia), and number of clinical risk variables. Patients were followed for perioperative events (during hospital admission) and death or infarction over the subsequent 16 +/- 10 months. Ten perioperative events occurred in 105 patients who proceeded to surgery (10%, 95% confidence interval [CI] 5% to 17%), 40 being cancelled because of cardiac or other risk. No ischemia was identified in 56 patients, 1 of whom (1.8%) had a perioperative infarction. Of the 49 patients with ischemia, 22 (45%) had 1 or 2 clinical risk factors; 2 (9%, 95% CI 1% to 29%) had events. Another 15 patients had a high ischemic threshold and 3 or 4 risk factors; 3 (20%, 95% CI 4% to 48%) had events. Twelve patients had a low ischemic threshold and 3 or 4 risk factors; 4 (33%, 95% CI 10% to 65%) had events. Preoperative myocardial revascularization was performed in only 3 patients, none of whom had events. Perioperative and long-term events occurred despite the use of beta blockers; 7 of 41 beta blocker-treated patients had a perioperative event (17%, 95% CI 7% to 32%); these treated patients were at higher anticipated risk than untreated patients (20 +/- 24% vs 10 +/- 19%, p = 0.02). The total event rate over late follow-up was 13%, and was predicted by dobutamine-atropine stress echo results and heart rate response.