BACKGROUND: Public concerns regarding the safety of transfused blood have prompted re-consideration of the indications for the transfusion of allogeneic red cells (blood from an unrelated donor), and a range of techniques designed to minimise transfusion requirements. OBJECTIVES: To examine the evidence for the efficacy of pre-operative autologous blood donation (PAD) in reducing the need for peri-operative allogeneic red blood cell (RBC) transfusion. SEARCH STRATEGY: Articles were identified by: computer searches of OVID MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Current Contents (to March 2001) and web sites of international health technology assessment agencies (to January 2001). References in the identified trials were checked and authors contacted to identify additional studies. SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomised controlled trials with a concurrent control group in which adult patients, scheduled for non-urgent surgery, were randomised to PAD, or to a control group who did not receive the intervention. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Trial quality was assessed using criteria proposed by Schulz et al (1995) and Jadad et al (1996). The principle outcomes were: the number of patients exposed to allogeneic red blood cells, and the amount of blood transfused. Other clinical outcomes are detailed in the review. MAIN RESULTS: Overall PAD reduced the risk of receiving an allogeneic blood transfusion by a relative 63% (RR=0.37: 95%CI:0.26,0.54). The absolute reduction in risk of allogeneic transfusion was 43.8% (RD=-0.438: 95%CI: -0.607,-0.268). In contrast the results show that the risk of receiving any blood transfusion (allogeneic and/or autologous) is actually increased by pre-operative autologous blood donation (RR=1.29: 95%CI: 1.12,1.48). Trials were unblinded and allocation concealment was not described in 87.5% of the trials. REVIEWER'S CONCLUSIONS: Although the trials of PAD showed a reduction in the need for allogeneic blood the methodological quality of the trials was poor and the overall transfusion rates (allogeneic and/or autologous) in these trials were high, and were increased by recruitment into the PAD arms of the trials. This raises questions about the true benefit of PAD. In the absence of large, high quality trials using clinical endpoints, it is not possible to say whether the benefits of PAD outweigh the harms.