OBJECTIVE--To assess the five year prognostic significance of transient myocardial ischaemia on ambulatory monitoring after a first acute myocardial infarction, and to compare the diagnostic and long term prognostic value of ambulatory ST segment monitoring, maximal exercise testing, and echocardiography in patients with documented ischaemic heart disease. DESIGN--Prospective study. SETTING--Cardiology department of a teaching hospital. PATIENTS--123 consecutive men aged under 70 who were able to perform predischarge maximal exercise testing. INTERVENTIONS--Echocardiography two days before discharge (left ventricular ejection fraction), maximal bicycle ergometric testing one day before discharge (ST segment depression, angina, blood pressure, heart rate), and ambulatory ST segment monitoring (transient myocardial ischaemia) started at hospital discharge a mean of 11 (SD 5) days after infarction. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--Relation of ambulatory ST segment depression, exercise test variables, and left ventricular ejection fraction to subsequent objective (cardiac death or myocardial infarction) or subjective (need for coronary revascularisation) events. RESULTS--23 of the 123 patients had episodes of transient ST segment depression, of which 98% were silent. Over a mean of 5 (range 4 to 6) years of follow up, patients with ambulatory ischaemia were no more likely to have objective end points than patients without ischaemic episodes. If, however, subjective events were included an association between transient ST segment depression and an adverse long term outcome was found (Kaplan-Meier analysis; P = 0.004). The presence of exercise induced angina identified a similar proportion of patients with a poor prognosis (Kaplan-Meier analysis; P < 0.004). Both exertional angina and ambulatory ST segment depression had high specificity but poor sensitivity. The presence of exercise induced ST segment depression was of no value in predicting combined cardiac events. Indeed, patients without exertional ST segment depression were at increased risk of future objective end points (Kaplan-Meier analysis; P < 0.0045). These findings may be explained in part by a higher prevalence of left ventricular dysfunction in patients without ischaemic changes in the exercise electrocardiogram (P < 0.05). CONCLUSION--There seem to be limited reasons to perform ambulatory ST segment monitoring in survivors of a first myocardial infarction who can perform exercise tests before discharge. Patients at high risk of future myocardial infarction or death from cardiac causes are not identified. Ambulatory monitoring and exertional angina distinguish a small subset of patients who will develop severe angina pectoris demanding coronary revascularisation during follow up. Patients without exercise induced ST segment depression comprise a high risk subgroup in terms of subsequent objective end points. The role of ambulatory ST segment monitoring performed in unselected patients immediately after infarction when risk is maximal remains to be clarified.