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Soc Sci Med. 1993 Aug;37(3):305-13.

The dilemma of seeking urgent care: asthma episodes and emergency service use.

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Medical Anthropology Program, School of Nursing, University of California, San Francisco 94143-0612.


Asthma is an invisible and unpredictable chronic illness characterized by recurrent episodes of airflow obstruction and airway inflammation. Until recently, psychological factors were thought to play a major role in this condition. The notion of an emotionally-based illness serves to discredit asthma as a 'real' illness among health professionals and patients alike, contributes to the sense of stigma that persons who have asthma experience, and impedes effective management. Findings from research with a sample of 95 adults with physician diagnosed and documented asthma indicate that persons who have asthma walk a tightrope between delaying formal medical intervention and seeking treatment too soon. Uncertainty about the quality and speed of care available in an emergency department shapes, in part, the nature of the lived experience of asthma and affects feelings of control over the illness. These concerns create a push-pull dynamic, as individuals struggle to make decisions about emergency department use that will provide relief, ensure autonomy, deter the experience of stigma, and diminish the threat of death.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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