Epidemiologic studies have shown an inverse correlation between high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (HDL-C) levels and cardiovascular disease outcomes. However, the hypothesis of a causal relationship between HDL-C and cardiovascular disease has been challenged by genetic and clinical studies. Serum cholesterol efflux capacity (CEC) is an important measure of HDL function in humans. Recent large clinical studies have shown a correlation between in vitro CEC and cardiovascular disease prevalence and incidence, which appears to be independent of HDL-C concentration. The present review summarizes recent large clinical studies and introduces important methodological considerations. Further studies are required to standardize and establish the reproducibility of this measure of HDL function and clarify whether modulating CEC will emerge as a useful therapeutic target.