Help seeking behaviours: exploring opportunities to investigate aspects of help seeking for health promotion

Lead Research Organisation: Medical Research Council


How a person responds to feeling ill is a very important issue. Whilst most people are aware of the limited resources of the NHS and, therefore, do not wish to waste services there is a balance between this and not missing important symptoms which may be a sign of serious illness.This study wishes to summarise the research evidence on what we know about how people make the decision of whether or not to seek care from a doctor when they have certain symptoms. We will consider three different symptoms headache, backache and coughing up blood. By summarising the current evidence it will be clear what further research is needed and will help us to design interventions which can help people to decide when it is important to seek help.

Technical Summary

It has been observed that whilst there is a wealth of evidence relating to how individuals perceive, experience and narrate their symptoms, less work has concentrated on how people act on their illness. Over the last few decades several sub-disciplines of health sciences have put forward theoretical frameworks to potentially enlighten illness action, however, how these frameworks have been supported empirically is less well known. Little has been done to draw together this body of knowledge, in particular, in a way which may be used to develop strategies to alter illness action.

Aim: The general aim of the project is to scope the field of help-seeking research. This will be met through addressing the following objectives: 1) Scoping review of published and unpublished work on help-seeking for headache, back pain, haemoptysis and interventions developed to change help-seeking behaviour; 2) Scoping of existing data sets which may be eligible for secondary analysis in relation to help-seeking; 3) Development of research proposals and collaborations.

Scoping review of the literature (objectives 1, 2 and 3): The literature review draws on the techniques of systematic reviewing to develop a conceptual review of published work. The Centre of Reviews and Dissemination (University of York) will assist with the development of an appropriate search strategy. As well as focusing on the three symptoms outlined (headache and backache to represent commonly encountered symptoms in the community and generally requiring minimal investigation and treatment by health professionals and haemoptysis representing an uncommon symptom generally requiring immediate investigation and treatment), we will also draw upon related research which has considered help seeking in other contexts, in particular, service specific research and that which has focused on issues of equity. If sufficient studies are available we will focus on research conducted in the UK as help seeking behaviours is strongly influenced by the health delivery system and its setting. A thematic analysis will be applied to the literature, given the range of study designs that will be encountered. The scoping review will also be used to identify key researchers in the field and any existing data sets which may be eligible for secondary analysis.

Interviews with key researchers across the UK (objectives 1, 2, 3): Academics with a specific interest in help seeking will be identified (from objective 1 and PHSRN collaborators) and invited to be interviewed in order to explore current thinking on the topic of help-seeking, familiarity with ongoing research, identification of key researchers in the field and identification of data suitable for secondary analysis. Key informants would be invited to participate in the research workshop.

Research workshop (objective 3): The workshop will bring together key researchers in the field (approximately 20) from a range of disciplines to include psychologists, sociologists, clinical researchers, statisticians, health service researchers and health economists. The content of the workshop and the participants will be determined from our scoping work. The outcomes from the workshop will include formulation of research collaborations and applications for further funding.


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