There is evidence to suggest that there exists considerable variation in red blood cell (RBC) transfusion practices, especially in the surgical specialties. This is in large part related to difficulties in defining specific transfusion threshold criteria, given that there is no minimum acceptable hemoglobin threshold concentration and there is variability in assigning importance to patient factors. The purpose of this study is to identify patient-related factors that might be associated with the need for allogeneic RBC transfusion in surgical patients. We systematically identified, selected, and reviewed all observational or interventional studies describing patient-specific or related variables associated with the need for allogeneic RBC transfusion in the surgical patient population. We also evaluated the methodological characteristics of the individual studies. Sixty-two studies met our inclusion criteria and were analyzed for this review. Most of these studies were conducted in patients undergoing cardiac surgery (n = 30) and orthopedic surgery (n = 16). Decreased preoperative red cell reserve was most frequently associated with RBC transfusions, being identified as a significant variable in 46 studies. The other factors commonly associated with transfusion were advancing age (n = 28), female gender (n = 21), and small body size (n = 14). Only 2 studies attempted to prospectively validate a predictive model for RBC transfusion based on the variables identified. This systematic review shows that preoperative anemia, advancing age, female gender, and small body size are often associated with perioperative allogeneic RBC transfusion. However, the retrospective nature of most of the studies and the small sample sizes make it difficult to formulate a clinically useful prediction rules regarding allogeneic RBC transfusion. Ongoing research in designing large prospective cohort studies evaluating transfusion patterns are needed to further elucidate how patient characteristics impact the transfusion threshold. Copyright 2003, Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.