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Because a number of options are available to relieve the obstructed bile duct, stomach or both in patients with irresectable carcinoma of the pancreatic head, palliative surgery for this condition was reviewed retrospectively between 1971 and 1981 at the Royal United Hospital, Bath. One hundred and sixty-five patients underwent a biliary bypass procedure with (n = 37), or without (n = 128) gastric drainage. Thirty patients had a prophylactic gastroenterostomy to avoid gastric outlet obstruction: tumour encroachment made gastroenterostomy essential in seven others. After biliary bypass alone, operative mortality was 14%. After a concomitant gastroenterostomy, mortality was 27% (P less than 0.04). Within a year of biliary bypass alone, there was a 9% incidence of gastric outlet obstruction requiring gastric drainage, with an associated mortality rate of 18%. Survival after biliary bypass or biliary bypass with gastroenterostomy was equal (7-8 months). Except where gastric outlet obstruction is imminent, palliation for irresectable pancreatic head carcinomas should be by biliary bypass alone, because the addition of a gastroenterostomy almost doubles the mortality without any advantage in survival time.