Demand for laboratory testing is increasing disproportionately to medical activity, and the tests involved are becoming increasingly complex. When this phenomenon is seen in parallel with declining teaching of laboratory medicine in the medical curriculum, a need emerges to manage demand to avoid unnecessary expenditure and improve the use of laboratory services: 'the right test in the right patient at the right time.' Various methods have been tried to manage demand, with success depending on the medical context, type of health service and preintervention situation. Because many factors contribute to demand, and the different settings in which these exist, it is not realistic to meta-analyse the studies and we are limited to trying to identify trends in results in particular situations. The studies suggest that education combined with facilitating interventions, such as feedback, prompts and changes to laboratory request forms are the most successful. From the perspective of a whole health service, it is important that results are not exaggerated by assessing benefits in terms of total rather than marginal cost. It would be desirable, although difficult, to include the impact on downstream clinical activity caused or avoided by the interventions. Advances in information and web technology may make the elusive goal of achieving substantial demand control more achievable.