In 1997 the NHLBI updated guidelines for the diagnosis and management of asthma. We hypothesized that not all components of the updated guidelines are well understood by the physicians who care for asthmatics. To develop appropriate educational interventions that address areas of physician misunderstanding, it is important to identify these components. Based upon NHLBI guidelines, we developed a multiple-choice test of asthma knowledge that was distributed to physicians at the University of Iowa; 108 physicians completed the test, including 20 asthma specialists, 11 asthma specialty fellows, 11 General Medicine faculty, five Family Medicine faculty, 51 Internal Medicine residents, and five Family Medicine residents. The mean correct total score for all physicians was 60 +/- 2% (mean +/- SEM). Asthma specialists scored higher in total score and in pharmacology and prevention. However, no group performed well on estimating disease severity. We further identified deficits in the use of spirometry and anti-inflammatory agents in caring for asthmatic patients. Thus, deficits exist in physician understanding and implementation of the NHLBI guidelines for the diagnosis and management of asthma. By identifying specific areas of misunderstanding, we can design better educational interventions. Clearly, educational programs should emphasize new models for estimating chronic disease severity.