Background: Communication within primary care consultations for children with acute illness can be problematic for parents and clinicians, with potential misunderstandings contributing to over-prescription of antibiotics. This review aimed to synthesise the evidence in relation to communication and decision making in consultations for children with common acute illness.
Methods: A systematic search of MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PsycINFO, SSCI, SIGLE, Dissertation Express and NHS economic evaluation databases was conducted. Studies of primary care settings in high income countries which made direct observations of consultations and reported qualitative data were included. Included studies were appraised using the process recommended by the Cochrane Qualitative Methods Group. Credibility was assessed as high for most studies but transferability was usually assessed low or unclear. Data were synthesised using a meta-ethnographic approach.
Results: Thirty-five papers and 2 theses reporting on 13 studies were included, 7 of these focussed on children with respiratory tract infections (RTI) and the remaining 6 included children with any presenting illness. Parent communication focussed on their concerns and information needs, whereas clinician communication focussed on diagnosis and treatment decisions. During information exchanges, parents often sought to justify the need for the consultation, while clinicians frequently used problem minimising language, resulting in parents and clinicians sometimes talking at cross-purposes. In the context of RTIs, a range of parent communication behaviours were interpreted by clinicians as indicating an expectation for antibiotics; however, most were ambiguous and could also be interpreted as raising concerns or requests for further information. The perceived expectation for antibiotics often changed clinician decision making into clinician-parent negotiation.
Conclusions: Misunderstandings occurred due to parents and clinicians talking at cross purposes about the 'seriousness' of the illness and because parents' expressions of concern or requests for additional information were sometimes perceived as a challenge to the clinicians' diagnosis or treatment decision. This modifiable problem may be an important contribution to the unnecessary and unwanted prescribing of antibiotics. Primary care clinicians should be offered training to understand parent communication primarily as expressions of concern or attempts at understanding and always to check rather than infer parental expectations.