Ibopamine, a dopamine derivative suitable for oral administration, is reported to improve cardiac function in patients with chronic heart failure. In order to evaluate the inotropic effect of ibopamine and to compare it with that of digoxin, we studied 10 patients with chronic heart failure (NYHA II-III). All patients were in sinus rhythm. After a washout period of 5 days, when the patients received a constant diuretic dosage and a placebo, ibopamine 100 mg t.i.d. or digoxin 0.25 mg o.d. was randomly given double-blind. The active treatment was continued for a 10-day period, and was followed by a second washout period of 5 days. Subsequently, the patients received digoxin if previously on ibopamine or ibopamine if previously on digoxin for 10 days. Diuretic was continued at the same dosage throughout the study. At the end of the two washout periods, all patients performed a static (hand grip) and a dynamic exercise (bicycle ergometer). Both ibopamine and digoxin improved cardiac response to both types of exercise compared to the washout periods. In particular, PEP/LVET decreased (p less than 0.001 for both drugs) and O2 consumption improved (from 586 +/- 48 to 716 +/- 35 ml/min for ibopamine and from 585 +/- 38 to 713 +/- 52 ml/min for digoxin). No difference was noted between the two drugs in the improvement of exercise tolerance. No side effects were noted with the two drugs. These data indicate that ibopamine could be a valid alternative to digoxin in heart failure patients in sinus rhythm when given for 10 days. More data are needed to evaluate the long-term efficacy of ibopamine.