BACKGROUND: As therapeutic options evolve for advanced heart failure, the appropriate role for cardiac transplantation will require survival analyses that reflect changing trends in causes of death and patient and institutional risk profiles. Results from multi-institutional studies could be used to monitor progress in individual centers. METHODS: Between 1990 and 1999, 7290 patients undergoing cardiac transplantation in 42 institutions entered a formal outcomes study. Changing survival, causes of death, and patient risk profiles were analyzed. Multivariable risk-factor equations were applied to a single institution (300 primary heart transplants) to examine differences in risk-adjusted expected versus observed actuarial outcomes over time. RESULTS: Overall survival in the 42 institutions improved during the decade (P =.02). One- and 3-year cardiac transplant research database survival was as follows: era 1 (1990-1992), 84% and 76%, respectively; era 2 (1993-1995), 85% and 79%, respectively; and era 3 (1996-1999), 85% and 79%, respectively. Causes of death changed over time. Pretransplantation risk profiles increased over time (P =.0001), with increases in reoperations, devices, diabetes, severely ill recipients, pulmonary vascular resistance, sensitization, ischemic times, donor age, and donor inotropic support. Three-year actuarial survival in a single institution was 3% less than risk-adjusted predicted survival in era 1, 1% higher than predicted in era 2, and 7% higher than predicted in era 3. CONCLUSIONS: Survival after cardiac transplantation is gradually improving, despite increasing risk profiles. Further improvement requires periodic re-evaluation of risk profiles and causes of death to target areas of surveillance, therapy, and research. By using these methods, progress at individual institutions can be assessed in a time-related, risk-adjusted manner that also reflects changing institutional experience, expertise, or both.