Surveys have shown that the prestige of medical specialities is ordered hierarchically. We investigate whether similar tacit agreement in the medical community also applies to diseases, since such rankings can affect priority settings in medical practice. A cross-sectional survey was performed in three samples of physicians and medical students in Norway in 2002. A questionnaire was sent to 305 senior doctors (response rate, 79%), 500 general practitioners (response rate, 65%) and 490 final-year medical students (response rate, 64%). Outcome measures were ratings on a 1-9 scale of the prestige these respondents believed most health personnel would accord to a sample set of 38 different diseases as well as 23 medical specialities. Both diseases and specialities were clearly and consistently ranked according to prestige. Myocardial infarction, leukaemia and brain tumour were among the highest ranked, and fibromyalgia and anxiety neurosis were among the lowest. Among specialities, neurosurgery and thoracic surgery were accorded the highest rank, and geriatrics and dermatovenerology the lowest. Our interpretation of the data is that diseases and specialities associated with technologically sophisticated, immediate and invasive procedures in vital organs located in the upper parts of the body are given high prestige scores, especially where the typical patient is young or middle-aged. At the other end, low prestige scores are given to diseases and specialities associated with chronic conditions located in the lower parts of the body or having no specific bodily location, with less visible treatment procedures, and with elderly patients.