Objective: To examine the views of doctors which underpin clinical practice variation concerning an uncertain health risk, and the views of parents who had sought advice from these doctors, using the example of childhood food allergy.
Study design: Qualitative study involving in-depth interviews and participant observation over 16 months. Focus groups and consultation audio-recordings provided corroborative data.
Setting: Three specialist allergy clinics located in one metropolitan area.
Participants: Eighteen medical specialists and trainees in allergy, and 85 parents (from 69 families) with food allergic children.
Results: Doctors expressed a spectrum of views. The most divergent views were characterized by: scientific scepticism rather than precaution in response to uncertainty; emphasis on quantifiable physical evidence rather than parental histories; professional roles as providers of physical diagnosis and treatment rather than of information and advocacy; libertarian rather than communitarian perspectives on responsibility for risk; and values about allergy as a disease and normal childhood. Parents held a similar, but less divergent range of views. The majority of parents preferred more moderate doctors' views, with 43% (30 of 69) of families expressing their dissatisfaction by seeking another specialist opinion. Many were confused by variation in doctors' opinions, preferring relationships with doctors that recognized their concerns, addressed their information needs, and confirmed that they were managing their child's allergy appropriately.
Conclusions: In uncertain clinical situations, parents do not expect absolute certainty from doctors; inflexible certainty may not allow parental preferences to be acknowledged or accommodated, and is associated with the seeking of second opinions.