Blood flow is a fundamental property of the hemodialysis access device. Periodic monitoring of flow could be useful for detection of impending access failure and prevention of underdialysis, but simple measurements of access flow during hemodialysis are not currently available. Flow in peripheral arteriovenous fistulas and grafts was examined using an indicator dilution technique while the patient's blood lines were reversed. The indicator was a bolus of normal saline detected by an ultrasound flow sensor clamped onto the patient's blood line. The ultrasound sensor measured blood flow in the tubing using an established transit-time method and simultaneously detected saline dilution of the blood from changes in the average cross sectional velocity of an ultrasound beam that illuminated the blood flowing through the tubing. Access flow was measured 110 times in 25 patients, 16 with loop grafts and 9 with native fistulas. Measured access flow ranged from 125 to 2860 ml/min. The mean error of duplicate measurements within patients was 5.0 +/- 3.8%. To assess the adequacy of saline mixing with the blood, access flow was measured at three dialyzer blood flow rates. In paired studies, no significant difference was observed in access flow measured at two lower dialyzer blood flow rates when compared to flow measured at 350 ml/min. A comparison with access flow measured by a duplex color Doppler technique in seven patients gave a mean error of 9.2 +/- 7.2% in paired studies. These data show that blood flow in peripheral arteriovenous grafts and fistulas can be measured accurately during hemodialysis using ultrasound velocity dilution.