Strategic targets for the management of foot ulcers focus on reducing the incidence of amputation. While data on the incidence of amputation can be obtained relatively easily, the figures require very careful interpretation. Variation in the definition of amputation, population selection and the choice of numerator and denominator make comparisons difficult. Major and minor amputation have to be distinguished as they are undertaken for different reasons and are associated with different costs and functional implications. Many factors influence the decision of whether or not to remove a limb. In addition to disease severity, co-morbidities, and social and individual patient factors, many aspects of the structure of care services affect this decision, including access to primary care, quality of primary care, delays in referral, availability and quality of specialist resources, and prevailing medical opinion. It follows that a high incidence of amputation can reflect a higher disease prevalence, late referral, limited resources, or a particularly interventionist approach by a specialist team. Conversely, a low incidence of amputation can indicate a lower disease prevalence or severity, good management of diabetes in primary and secondary care, or a particularly conservative approach by an expert team. An inappropriately conservative approach could conceivably enhance suffering by condemning a person to months of incapacity before they die with an unhealed ulcer. The reported annual incidence of major amputation in industrialised countries ranges from 0.06 to 3.83 per 10(3) people at risk. Some centres have documented that the incidence is falling, but this is often from a baseline value that was unusually high. Other centres have reported that the incidence has not changed. The ultimate target is to achieve not only a decrease in incidence, but also a low overall incidence. This must be accompanied by improvements in morbidity, mortality, and patient function and mood.