OBJECTIVE--To develop a model to assess the cost-efficacy of the implantable cardioverter defibrillator to prevent sudden death. The model must be sufficiently flexible to allow the use of cost and survival figures derived from different sources. SETTING--The study was conducted in a teaching hospital department of cardiology with experience of 40 implantable cardioverter defibrillator implants and a large database of over 500 survivors of myocardial infarction. PROCEDURE--The basic costs of screening tests, stay in hospital, and purchase of implantable cardioverter defibrillators were derived from St George's Hospital during 1991. To assess the cost-efficacy of various strategies for the use of implantable cardioverter defibrillators, survival data taken from published studies or from our own database. Implications of the national cost of the various strategies were calculated by estimating the number of patients a year requiring implantation of a defibrillator if the strategy was adopted. RESULTS--Use of implantable cardioverter defibrillators in survivors of cardiac arrest costs between 22,400 pounds and 57,000 pounds for each year of life saved. Most of the strategies proposed by the current generation of implantable cardioverter defibrillator trials have cost efficacies in the same range, and adoption of any one of these strategies in the United Kingdom could cost between 2 million pounds and 100 million pounds a year. Future technical and medical developments mean that cost-efficacy may be improved by up to 80%. Due to the limitations of screening tests currently available restriction on the use of implantable cardioverter defibrillators to those groups where it seems highly cost-effective will result in a small impact on overall mortality from sudden cardiac death. CONCLUSION--Present and possible future applications of the implantable cardioverter defibrillator seem expensive when compared with currently accepted treatments. Technical and medical developments are, however, likely to result in a dramatic improvement in cost efficacy over the next few years.