Systemic hypertension is an important public health concern. If optometrists are to perform a more active role in the detection and monitoring of high blood pressure (BP), there is a need to improve the consistency of describing the retinal vasculature and to assess patient's ability to correctly report the diagnosis of hypertension, its control and medication. One hundred and one patients aged >40 years were dilated and had fundus photography performed. BP was measured and a self-reported history of general health and current medication was compared with the records of their general practitioner (GP). The status of the retinal vasculature was quantified using a numeric scale by five clinicians and this was compared to the same evaluation performed with the aid of a basic pictorial grading scale. Image analysis was used to objectively measure the artery-to-vein (A/V) ratio and arterial reflex. Arteriolar tortuosity and calibre changes were found to be the most sensitive retinal signs of high BP. Using the grading scale to describe the retinal vasculature significantly improved inter- and intra-observer repeatability. Almost half the patients examined were on medication for high BP or cardiovascular disease. Patients' ability to give their complete medical history was poor, as was their ability to recall what medication they had been prescribed. GPs indicated it was useful to receive details of their patient's BP when it was >140/90 mmHg. The use of improved description of the retinal vasculature and stronger links between optometrists and GPs may enhance future patient care. © 2001 The College of Optometrists. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.