Intended for healthcare professionals

General Practice

What worries parents when their preschool children are acutely ill, and why: a qualitative study

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 19 October 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:983
  1. Joe Kai, lecturer in primary health carea
  1. a Department of Primary Health Care, Medical School, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4HH
  • Accepted 7 August 1996


Objective: To identify and explore parents' concerns when young children become acutely ill.

Design: Qualitative study making use of semi-structured one to one and group interviews with parents of preschool children.

Setting: Disadvantaged inner city community.

Subjects: 95 parents of preschool children.

Results: Fever, cough, and the possibility of meningitis were parents' primary concerns when their children became acutely ill. Parents' concerns reflected lay beliefs, their interpretation of medical knowledge, and their fears that their child might die or be permanently harmed. Parents worried about failing to recognise a serious problem. Concerns were expressed within the context of keenly felt pressure, emphasising parents' responsibility to protect their child from harm. They were grounded in two linked factors: parents' sense of personal control when faced with illness in their child and the perceived threat posed by an illness.

Conclusions: Better understanding of parents' concerns may promote effective communication between health professionals and parents. Modification of parents' personal control and perceived threat using appropriate information and education that acknowledge and address their concerns may be a means of empowering parents.

Key messages

  • Parents worried about fever, cough, the possi- bility of meningitis, and failing to recognise a seri- ous problem

  • Better understanding of parents' concerns and what causes them may promote more effective communication between health professionals and parents


  • Funding Northern and Yorkshire Regional Health Authority.

  • Conflict of interest None.

  • Accepted 7 August 1996
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