The diagnostic value of zinc protoporphyrin (ZPP) as an indicator of iron-deficient anemia (IDA) in hospitalized patients is assessed in this study. ZPP was measured using an AVIV hematofluorometer with a coefficient of variation (CV) less than 5% and a recovery of greater than 97%. A reference range of 53-70 mu mol/mol heme was determined for ZPP in non-anemic patients in a hospital population. Hospitalized patients (221) with low hemoglobin (< 120 g/l) were evaluated for their iron status. ZPP and other anemia tests were performed. Macrocytic patients with mean corpuscular volume (MCV) greater than 98 fl) were excluded from the study. Seventy-four microcytic patients (MCV < 80 fl) were determined as having IDA according to a diagnostic algorithm. A distribution study of these microcytic patients showed that there was a significant overlap of values between the IDA and non-IDA patients for all serum anemia tests. A receiver-operator curve analysis revealed that ZPP has a relatively high degree of diagnostic efficiency better than iron and ferritin for this patient population. At a cutoff value > 170 mu mol/mol heme, ZPP has a sensitivity of 93% and a specificity of 90%. In addition, ZPP is also elevated in normocytic patients (MCV = 80-98 fl) with low ferritin values, who may have iron depletion. From these data, it is proposed that ZPP may be used as a screening tool for IDA in hospitalized patients.