qRT-PCR (real-time reverse transcription-PCR) has become the benchmark for the detection and quantification of RNA targets and is being utilized increasingly in novel clinical diagnostic assays. Quantitative results obtained by this technology are not only more informative than qualitative data, but simplify assay standardization and quality management. qRT-PCR assays are most established for the detection of viral load and therapy monitoring, and the development of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome)-associated coronavirus qRT-PCR assays provide a textbook example of the value of this technology for clinical diagnostics. The widespread use of qRT-PCR assays for diagnosis and the detection of disease-specific prognostic markers in leukaemia patients provide further examples of their usefulness. Their value for the detection of disease-associated mRNA expressed by circulating tumour cells in patients with solid malignancies is far less apparent, and the clinical significance of results obtained from such tests remains unclear. This is because of conceptual reservations as well as technical limitations that can interfere with the diagnostic specificity of qRT-PCR assays. Therefore, although it is evident that qRT-PCR assay has become a useful and important technology in the clinical diagnostic laboratory, it must be used appropriately and it is essential to be aware of its limitations if it is to fulfil its potential.