Ethics, clinical performance, resource constraints and research all interact regularly in informing and driving the debate about the direction of health care in modern societies. Medicine has become the practice of what should be done rather than the art merely of what is possible. A public report criticising one of Europe's leading heart centres of being less willing to perform complex heart surgery in children with Down's syndrome generated a thoughtful discussion on whether equality of access is compatible with resource decisions in the rationing of limited health care resources. This and the developments in new high-technology solutions to end-stage heart failure make decision making on the cardiovascular medicine of the 21(st) century ever more important. This article discusses these issues in the light of realisation that performance issues, greater public oversight of medical decision making and the expansion of expensive medical options set policy makers, the public and the medical profession on a collision course which only prolonged and thoughtful debate can avoid.