The optimal preoperative evaluation of cardiac risk in patients with peripheral vascular disease is controversial. In developing a paradigm for preoperative cardiac workup, potential adverse effects of evaluation and cardiac intervention must be considered. This study analyzed the deleterious outcomes of extensive, comprehensive cardiac evaluation and intervention before planned vascular surgery in patients treated at the Denver Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Over a 12-month period between 1994 and 1995, 161 patients were scheduled to undergo major vascular operations; 153 patients came to operation. The decision to pursue a cardiac evaluation was variously made by a combination of surgeons, cardiologists, and anesthesiologists. No defined protocol was followed. Cardiac history, chest X-rays and ECGs were obtained for all patients. Extended cardiac evaluation included these studies plus special tests, including echocardiography (echo), radionuclide ventriculography (RNVG), dipyridamole thallium scintigraphy (DTS), and cardiac catheterization (CC). Extended cardiac evaluations were undertaken in 42 patients. Complications related to percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA) and coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) were also recorded. Cardiac mortality and morbidity after vascular interventions were itemized in all 153 patients. Forty-two male patients, aged 68 +/- 9 years, underwent extended cardiac evaluations before planned vascular operations. The median elapsed time for cardiac workup was 14 days (mean 30 +/- 59 days). The median and mean times from cardiac workup to vascular surgery were 25 days and 76 +/- 142 days, respectively. Eighteen (43%) patients had echo or RNVG; 22 (52%) patients had DTS; 27 (64%) had CC; 9 (21%) had PTCA; 7 (17%) had CABG. Sixteen (38%) patients had untoward events related to cardiac evaluation. Eight patients (19%: one with cerebrovascular disease, and seven with aortic aneurysms) refused vascular surgery after extended cardiac workup. Complications attributable to CC, PTCA, and CABG included prosthetic graft infection, pseudoaneurysms (two), sternal wound infections (two), renal failure and brain anoxia. Two patients with severe limb ischemia who were candidates for revascularization ultimately required amputations because of delay due to cardiac evaluations. Extensive cardiac evaluation prior to vascular operations can result in morbidity, delays, and refusal to undergo vascular surgery. The underlying indication for vascular operations and the local iatrogenic cardiac complication rates must be considered before ordering special studies.