Background: A study was undertaken to investigate the clinical practice, yield, and costs of preoperative staging in patients with suspected NSCLC and to obtain baseline data for prospective studies on the cost effectiveness of 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography in the management of these patients. Methods: A retrospective study of the medical records of all patients with suspected NSCLC was performed during a 2 year interval (1993-4) in an academic and a large community hospital. Results: Three hundred and ninety five patients with suspected NSCLC were identified; 58 were deemed to be medically inoperable and 337 patients proceeded to the staging process. Staging required a mean (SD) of 5.1 (1.5) diagnostic tests per patient (excluding thoracotomy) carried out over a median period of 20 days (IQR 10-31). Many of the tests (including both invasive and non-invasive) were done because previous imaging tests had suggested metastases, and in most cases the results of initial tests proved to be false positives. After clinical staging, 168 patients were considered to be resectable (stage 1/11) and 144 patients underwent surgery with curative intent. At surgery 33 patients (23% of those who underwent surgery) were found to have irresectable lesions and 19 (13%) had a benign lesion. Surgery was also considered to be futile in 22 patients (15%) who developed metastases or local recurrence within 12 months following radical surgery. Hospital admission was responsible for most of the costs. Conclusion: In many patients staging involved considerable effort in terms of the number of diagnostic tests, the duration of the staging period and the cost, with limited success in preventing futile surgery. Failures relate to the quality of diagnostic preparation at every level of the TNM staging system.