BACKGROUND : Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation offers temporary hemodynamic support for patients with refractory cardiogenic shock after cardiovascular surgery. However, the initiation time for such patients is controversial. Changing the initiation time might improve the outcomes. This study aimed to investigate whether early extracorporeal membrane oxygenation could improve postoperative outcomes in patients at a high risk of cardiogenic shock. METHODS : In this retrospective study, 173 patients with cardiovascular diseases at a high risk of refractory cardiogenic shock which assessed via empirical risk evaluation from 2010 to 2017 were included. After propensity matching, 36 patients, who were matched to patients initiated with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation after cardiovascular operation (delayed extracorporeal membrane oxygenation group, n = 36), were also initiated with such early in the operating room (early extracorporeal membrane oxygenation group, n = 36). The primary outcome was death. The secondary outcomes included receiving continuous renal replacement therapy, ventricular arrhythmia, and pulmonary infection. RESULTS : The demographic and baseline variables were similar between the matched groups. The early extracorporeal membrane oxygenation group showed lower mortality (69.44% vs 41.67%, P = 0.03), pulmonary infection morbidity (86.11% vs 55.56%, P < 0.01), and continuous renal replacement therapy rate(88.89% vs 66.67%, P = 0.04). Moreover, they showed improved cardiac index (P = 0.01) and lactate clearance (P < 0.01). CONCLUSIONS : Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation provides effective support for cardiogenic failure refractory to medical management; early initiation improves cardiac output and promotes lactate clearance, thus increasing survival in patients with cardiogenic shock after cardiovascular surgery. BACKGROUND : This is a retrospective study. It was not registered.