There has been no study comparing the efficacy of dobutamine and exercise echocardiography in detecting coronary artery disease (CAD) or their physiologic effects at ischemic threshold in the same group of patients. To accomplish this, 52 patients presenting for coronary angiography underwent supine ergometer exercise and dobutamine echocardiography. Compared with angiography, the overall sensitivity of detecting CAD was 78% for exercise and 86% for dobutamine echocardiography (p = NS). The sensitivities of detecting patients with 1-, 2-, 3- and multivessel CAD with exercise echocardiography were 63, 80, 100 and 90%, respectively, and with dobutamine echocardiography 75, 90, 100 and 95%, respectively (p = NS, exercise vs dobutamine). The specificity of both tests was 87%. At ischemic threshold, heart rate was significantly lower with dobutamine than with exercise echocardiography (91 +/- 3 vs 114 +/- 3 beats/min; p < 0.001), systolic blood pressure was significantly lower with dobutamine testing (155 +/- 5 vs 176 +/- 6 mm Hg; p < 0.01), and rate-pressure product was significantly lower with dobutamine stress (14.1 +/- 0.7 vs 19.8 +/- 0.8 x 10(3) beats/min x mm Hg; p < 0.001). It is concluded that the efficacy of detecting CAD by exercise and dobutamine echocardiography is comparable, and the physiology at ischemic threshold of the 2 methods is significantly different and suggests a different means of inducing myocardial ischemia.