A number of reports have suggested that there are substantial racial differences in the frequency of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease and its complications, but few studies have compared directly the frequency of this disorder amongst different racial groups. To explore the racial differences in the frequency of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease and its complications. We reviewed endoscopy reports and medical records for data on race and complications of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease in 2,477 consecutive patients who had endoscopic examinations at the general endoscopy unit of an academic hospital. In addition, we prospectively interviewed 129 out-patients attending general medical clinics in the hospital and in an Asian community health centre in Boston to obtain data on race and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease symptoms. One or more gastro-oesophageal reflux disease complications (peptic oesophageal ulcer, stricture or Barrett's oesophagus) were observed in 267 of 2,174 white patients (12.3%), seven of 249 black patients (2.8%), one of 21 West Asian patients (4.8%) and none of 33 East Asian patients seen at the general endoscopy unit (P < 0.001); 34.6% of whites, 46.1% of blacks and 2.6% of East Asian patients interviewed claimed that they had heartburn (P < 0.01), but the term 'heartburn' was understood by only 34.6%, 53.8% and 13.2% of whites, blacks and East Asians, respectively (P < 0.01). Asian patients in Boston infrequently complain of heartburn, whereas heartburn is commonly reported by both white and black patients. Many patients do not understand the meaning of the term heartburn, however, and so physicians should be cautious when using the term during patient interviews. Complicated gastro-oesophageal reflux disease appears to be predominantly a disorder of whites.