BACKGROUND: Arteriovenous (AV) fistulas are the vascular access of choice for hemodialysis patients, but only about 20% of hemodialysis patients in the United States dialyze with fistulas. There is little information known about the factors associated with this low prevalence of fistulas. METHODS: Multiple logistic regression analysis was used to evaluate the independent contribution of factors associated with AV fistula use among patients enrolled in the HEMO Study. The analysis was conducted in 1824 patients with fistulas or grafts at 45 dialysis units (15 clinical centers). RESULTS: Thirty-four percent of the patients had fistulas. The prevalence of fistulas varied markedly from 4 to 77% among the individual dialysis units (P < 0.001). Multiple regression analysis revealed five demographic and clinical factors that were each independently associated with a lower likelihood of having a fistula, even after adjustment for dialysis unit. Specifically, the prevalence of fistulas was lower in females than males [adjusted odds ratio (AOR) 0.37, 95% CI, 0.28 to 0.48], lower in patients with peripheral vascular disease than in those without (AOR 0.55, 95% CI, 0.38 to 0.79), lower in blacks than in non-blacks (AOR 0.64, 95% CI, 0.46 to 0.89), lower in obese patients (AOR per 5 kg/m(2) body mass index, 0.76, 95% CI, 0.65 to 0.87), and lower in older patients (AOR per 10 years, 0.85, 95% CI, 0.78 to 0.94). The differences in the prevalence of fistulas among the dialysis units remained statistically significant (P < 0.001) after adjustment for these demographic and clinical factors. Finally, there were substantial variations in the prevalence of fistulas even among dialysis units in a single metropolitan area. CONCLUSIONS: Future efforts to increase the prevalence of fistulas in hemodialysis patients should be directed at both hemodialysis units and patient subpopulations with a low fistula prevalence.