The feasibility, safety and clinical impact of transesophageal echocardiography were evaluated in 51 critically ill intensive care unit patients (28 men and 23 women; mean age 63 years) in whom transthoracic echocardiography was inadequate. At the time of transesophageal echocardiography, 30 patients (59%) were being mechanically ventilated. Transesophageal echocardiography was performed without significant complications in 49 patients (96%), and 2 patients with heart failure had worsening of hemodynamic and respiratory difficulties after insertion of the transesophageal probe. The most frequent indication, in 25 patients (49%), was unexplained hemodynamic instability. Other indications included evaluation of mitral regurgitation severity, prosthetic valvular dysfunction, endocarditis, aortic dissection and potential donor heart. In 30 patients (59%), transesophageal echocardiography identified cardiovascular problems that could not be clearly diagnosed by transthoracic echocardiography. In the remaining patients, transesophageal echocardiography permitted confident exclusion of suspected abnormalities because of its superior imaging qualities. Cardiac surgery was prompted by transesophageal echocardiographic findings in 12 patients (24%) and these findings were confirmed at operation in all. Therefore, transesophageal echocardiography can be safely performed and has a definite role in the diagnosis and expeditious management of critically ill cardiovascular patients. © 1990.