Background: Diagnosing childhood asthma is dependent upon parental symptom reporting but there are problems in the use of words and terms. The purpose of this study was to describe and compare understandings of childhood 'asthma' by mothers from three different ethnic backgrounds who have no personal experience of diagnosing asthma. A better understanding of parents' perceptions of an illness by clinicians should improve communication and management of the illness.
Method: Sixty-six mothers living in east London describing their ethnic backgrounds as Bangladeshi, white English and black Caribbean were recruited to 9 focus groups. Discussion was semi-structured. Three sessions were conducted with each ethnic group. Mothers were shown a video clip of a boy with audible wheeze and cough and then addressed 6 questions. Sessions were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Responses were compared within and between ethnic groups.
Results: Each session, and ethnic group overall, developed a particular orientation to the discussion. Some mothers described the problem using single signs, while others imitated the sound or made comparisons to other illnesses. Hereditary factors were recognised by some, although all groups were concerned with environmental triggers. Responses about what to do included 'normal illness' strategies, use of health services and calls for complementary treatment. All groups were concerned about using medication every day. Expectations about the quality of life were varied, with recognition that restrictions may be based on parental beliefs about asthma, rather than asthma itself.
Conclusion: Information from these focus groups suggests mothers know a great deal about childhood asthma even though they have no personal experience of it. Knowledge of how mothers from these ethnic backgrounds perceive asthma may facilitate doctor - patient communication with parents of children experiencing breathing difficulties.