Heart failure is a growing public health problem in industrialized countries with ageing populations. Scotland has a relatively stable population of approximately 5 million and a well described system for recording details of hospitalizations (Scottish Hospital In-Patients Statistics-SHIPS). We have examined SHIPS data for hospitalizations for heart failure in Scotland 1980-1990. Discharges for heart failure as the primary diagnosis increased by almost 60%, from 1.30 to 2.12/1000 population in this period (as either primary or secondary diagnosis the rate increased from 2.51 to 4.24/1000). Seventy-eight percent of discharges were in persons aged > or = 65 years and 48% of discharges were male. Heart failure (primary diagnosis) accounted for almost 4% of all general (internal) medicine discharges. In-patient case fatality was 18% in 1990. Mean duration of in-patient stay on Internal Medicine wards was approximately 11 days. The number of hospitalizations for heart failure is now almost identical to those for myocardial infarction. These trends mirror those recently reported from the United States. Heart failure is an increasingly common and costly cause of hospitalization in Scotland. Approaches which can reduce this burden on the hospital service require urgent attention.