OBJECTIVE: To investigate variations in the management of patients with atrial fibrillation among consultant physicians. DESIGN: Questionnaire survey. SUBJECTS: Consultant physicians in England, Wales, and Scotland. RESULTS: 214 consultant physicians (88 cardiologists and 126 non-cardiologists) were surveyed between May and July 1994. Most physicians (47.7%) reported that they saw one to five patients with atrial fibrillation weekly. Some 52% of cardiologists and 40% of non-cardiologists considered that the main factor influencing their decision of whether or not to anticoagulate was the clinical history--that is, heart failure, valve disease, or stroke. When encountering a patient admitted acutely with new onset atrial fibrillation, significantly more cardiologists (66% v 52%, chi 2 = 6.89, P = 0.03) would immediately start anticoagulant treatment, most favouring intravenous heparin. Most physicians would also introduce antiarrhythmic treatment or digoxin, but more cardiologists would attempt immediate pharmacological (39% v 18% of non-cardiologists, P < 0.001) or later electrical (86% v 69%, chi 2 = 11.7, P = 0.003) cardioversion to sinus rhythm, while non-cardiologists tended to prefer "rate control" with digoxin. Although many physicians would not continue antiarrhythmic treatment post-cardioversion, more cardiologists than non-cardiologists would do so (the commonest choice being class III agents) (31% v 17%, P = 0.04). Fewer non-cardiologists would continue anticoagulant treatment post-cardioversion (27% v 69% of cardiologists, chi 2 = 39.8, P < 0.0001). When treating patients with atrial fibrillation, decisions about anticoagulation were usually related to the perceived relative risk of thromboembolism versus haemorrhage derived for each of six case management scenarios in the questionnaire. There was, however, general agreement between cardiologists and non-cardiologists in the use of antithrombotic treatment in the management of lone atrial fibrillation, paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, and patients with atrial fibrillation and mitral valve disease or thyrotoxicosis. CONCLUSION: There is considerable variation in the management of atrial fibrillation, with more cardiologists than non-cardiologists considering cardioversion to sinus rhythm (and the use of antiarrhythmic and anticoagulant treatment post-cardioversion) and thrombo-prophylaxis with anticoagulation. Guidelines on the management of this common arrhythmia are clearly required.