This study estimated the prevalence of poor adjustment and family dysfunction among three chronically ill clinic patient populations and assessed the biological, situational, social and psychological variables which most explained poor adjustment. Recently referred subjects were approached and 216 chronically ill subjects (from oncology, rheumatology and gastroenterology clinics) completed a Meaning of Illness Questionnaire, the McMaster Family Assessment Device, and the Psychosocial Adjustment to Illness Self-report Scale. In addition, information describing their biological, disease and socioeconomic status was obtained from the clinic record. Respondents were generally representative of other new referrals to the clinics (ineligible for the subsequent trial) in disease characteristics but uniformly came from a more advantaged socioeconomic situation and were better adjusted to illness. Subjects from the three clinics were comparable on meaning, family function and adjustment variables. The proportion of subjects with family dysfunction was 30% and with poor adjustment to illness was 36%, high by community standards. Nevertheless, healthy family functioning and high levels of positive adjustment to chronic illness prevailed and were remarkably similar across clinic settings. Severity or type of disease was not related to adjustment outcomes nor to the level of observed disability. Rather, as hypothesized, meaning given the illness, followed by family function, and disability variables combined to explain 57% of the variance in adjustment outcomes. An intervention designed to improve family function and the meaning given illness was judged suitable.