The role of monitors in patients undergoing general anaesthesia was studied by analysing the first 2000 incidents reported to the Australian Incident Monitoring Study; 1256 (63%) were considered applicable to this study. In 52% of these a monitor detected the incident first; oximetry (27%) and capnography (24%) detected over half of the monitor detected incidents, the electrocardiograph 19%, blood pressure monitors 12%, a low pressure (circuit) alarm 8%, and the oxygen analyser 4%. Of the other monitors used, 5 first detected 1-2% of incidents, and the remaining 8 less than 0.5% each. The oximeter would have detected over 40% of the monitor detected incidents had its more informative modulated pulse tone always been relied upon instead of the "bleep" of the ECG. A theoretical analysis was then carried out to determine which of an array of 17 monitors would reliably have detected each incident had each monitor been used on its own and had the incident been allowed to evolve. To facilitate "scoring" of monitors, the incidents were categorized empirically into 60 clinical situations; 40% of applicable incidents were accounted for by only 5 clinical situations, 60% by 10 and nearly 80% by 20. 98% were accounted for by the 60 situations. A pulse oximeter, used on its own, would theoretically have detected 82% of applicable incidents (nearly 60% before any potential for organ damage). These figures for capnography are 55% and 43% and for oximetry and capnography combined are 88% and 65%, respectively. With the addition of blood pressure monitoring these become 93% and 65%, and of an oxygen analyser, 95 and 67%. Other monitors, including the ECG, each increase the yield by by less than 0.5%. The international monitoring recommendations and those of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists are thoroughly vindicated by the patterns revealed in this study. The priority sequence of monitor acquisition for those with limited resources should be stethoscope, sphygmomanometer, oxygen analyser if nitrous oxide is to be used, pulse oximeter, capnograph, high pressure alarm, and, if patients are to be mechanically ventilated, a low pressure alarm (or spirometer with alarm); an ECG, a defibrillator, a spirometer and a thermometer should be available.