BACKGROUND AND STUDY AIMS: The incidence of oesophageal adenocarcinoma has increased significantly in recent years. While surveillance of people with Barrett's oesophagus, its usual precursor, has been advocated in order to detect dysplasia and early cancer in those considered to be at greatest risk, the impact of such a strategy on survival from oesophageal adenocarcinoma is unclear. This study aimed to determine the effect of surveillance on mortality from oesophageal adenocarcinoma in a group of patients considered to be at high risk of developing Barrett's oesophagus and adenocarcinoma. PATIENTS AND METHODS: After performing a Medline search of the literature published between 1985 and 2004 for studies on gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, Barrett's oesophagus and adenocarcinoma, we examined the impact of surveillance on mortality from oesophageal adenocarcinoma in a hypothetical sample of 100 high-risk patients (men aged over 50 with Barrett's oesophagus but without high-grade dysplasia at entry). RESULTS: Four patients in this high-risk group developed adenocarcinoma during surveillance, with survival rates of 78.9% (95%CI 64.9%-88.5%) at 2 years and 78.6% (95%CI 62.8%-89.2%) at 5 years. Meanwhile, between 515 and 2060 patients with Barrett's oesophagus were not detected or surveyed by this strategy and between 16 and 61 of these developed adenocarcinoma, with much lower survival rates of 37.1% (95%CI 25.4%-50.3%) at 2 years and 16.7% (95%CI 9%-28.3%) at 5 years. Although surveillance in the high-risk group resulted in the long-term survival of three patients who would not otherwise have survived, this gain was dramatically offset by the 13 to 51 patients, excluded from surveillance by this strategy, who died from oesophageal adenocarcinoma. CONCLUSIONS: A surveillance programme based on current concepts of risk cannot have an impact on mortality from oesophageal adenocarcinoma. To be effective, it will be necessary for surveillance programmes to utilise more precise methods for the identification of those who are most at risk of progression to adenocarcinoma.