Parental views on acute otitis media (AOM) and its therapy in children - results of an exploratory survey in German childcare facilities
Kautz-Freimuth et al. BMC Pediatrics
Parental views on acute otitis media (AOM) and its therapy in children - results of an exploratory survey in German childcare facilities
Sibylle Kautz-Freimuth 0 1
Marcus Redaèlli 0 1
Christina Samel 0 1
Daniele Civello 0 1
Sibel V. Altin 0 1
Stephanie Stock 0 1
0 Institute of Health Economics and Clinical Epidemiology, University Hospital of Cologne (AöR) , Gleueler Straße 176-178, 50935 Cologne , Germany
1 Institute of Health Economics and Clinical Epidemiology, University Hospital of Cologne (AöR) , Gleueler Straße 176-178, 50935 Cologne , Germany
Background: Acute otitis media (AOM) is one of the main reasons for medical consultation and antibiotic use during childhood. Although 80 % of AOM cases are self-limiting, antibiotic prescription is still high, either for physician- or for parent-related factors. This study aims to identify parental knowledge about, beliefs and attitudes towards, and experiences with AOM and its therapy and thus to gain insights into parents' perspectives within the German health care system. Methods: An exploratory survey was conducted among German-speaking parents of children aged 2 to 7 years who sent their children to a childcare facility. Childcare facilities were recruited by convenience sampling in different urban and rural sites in Germany, and all parents with children at those facilities were invited to participate. Data were evaluated using descriptive statistical analyses. Results: One-hundred-thirty-eight parents participated. Of those, 75.4 % (n = 104) were AOM-experienced and 75.4 % (n = 104) had two or more children. Sixty-six percent generally agree that bacteria cause AOM. 20.2 % generally agree that viruses cause AOM. 30.5 % do not generally agree that viruses cause AOM. Eight percent generally agree that AOM resolves spontaneously, whereas 53.6 % do not generally agree. 92.5 % generally (45.7 %) and partly (42.8 %) agree that AOM needs antibiotic treatment. With respect to antibiotic effects, 56.6 % generally agree that antibiotics rapidly relieve earache. 60.1 % generally agree that antibiotics affect the gastrointestinal tract and 77.5 % generally agree that antibiotics possibly become ineffective after frequent use. About 40 % generally support and about 40 % generally reject a “wait-and-see” strategy for AOM treatment. Parental-reported experiences reveal that antibiotics are by far more often prescribed (70.2 %) than actively requested by parents (26.9 %). Conclusions: Parental views on AOM, its therapy, and antibiotic effects reveal uncertainties especially with respect to causes, the natural course of the disease and antibiotic effects on AOM. These results indicate that more evidence-based information is needed if parents' health literacy in the treatment of children with AOM is to be enhanced. The discrepancy between reported parental requests for antibiotics and reported actual prescriptions contradicts the hypothesis of high parental influence on antibiotic use in AOM.
Acute otitis media in children; Antibiotic treatment; Exploratory survey; Pediatrics; Health service research; Parental views
Acute otitis media (AOM) is one of the most common
infectious diseases in young children and represents one
of the main reasons for doctor consultations during
]. In addition AOM is the leading cause of
antibiotic treatment in children [
]. According to data
from the USA, around 50 to 85 % of all children up to
the age of three have had at least one episode of AOM
] and about 40 % have experienced six or more
episodes by the age of seven . According to the German
Health Interview and Examination Survey for Children
and Adolescents (KIGGS) the 12-month prevalence of
AOM across all age groups is 11 % and rises to 22.9 %
between the ages of 3 and 6 years [
]. AOM can be
caused by bacteria or viruses as well as by mixed
pathophysiological mechanisms [
]. The bacterial
pathogens mostly involved in AOM development are
Streptococcus pneumonia, Haemophilus influenza, and
Moraxella catarrhalis [
], but it has been suggested that
the spectrum of predominant bacterial pathogens
responsible for AOM might change due to previous
antibiotic prescriptions [
] or to pneumococcal vaccination
]. AOM episodes typically occur subsequent to a
viral upper respiratory infection, but the underlying
mechanisms for the interaction between the different
pathogens are still being investigated . Despite the
frequent involvement of bacteria in the pathogenesis of
AOM, an antibiotic treatment is not imperative, with
research showing that 80 % of uncomplicated AOM
cases in children resolve spontaneously within 48 to
72 h without antibiotic therapy [
]. Nevertheless, data
from the USA and other countries indicate that up to
80 % of medical consultations due to otitis media in
children still result in an antibiotic prescription [
4, 17, 18
In the light of the rising prevalence of antibiotic
resistance in bacteria [
], the arguments in favour of
reducing antibiotic overuse/misuse are compelling. One
decisive approach is to avoid antibiotics if not indicated
or not superior to symptomatic treatment. A Cochrane
Review has recently demonstrated that immediate
antibiotic therapy in children with AOM is not superior to
an observational therapy (“wait-and-see”) [
]; a therapy
where children receive symptomatic analgesic treatment
and an antibiotic is not given unless symptoms fail to
improve within 48 to 72 h after onset [
there is a broad consensus that antibiotics are most
beneficial in children younger than 2 years of age with
bilateral AOM, and in children with both acute otitis
media and otorrhoea [
]. For most other children
with mild unilateral AOM, an observational approach
seems justified [
]. Despite this existing evidence for
this strategy the proportion of antibiotic treatment in
children with AOM is still high [
]. Possible reasons for
physicians over-prescribing antibiotics include physician inertia,
lack of detailed knowledge, insufficient use of appropriate
analgesia or uncertain diagnosis [
]. With respect to
parental influence on the prescription of antibiotics, there is
evidence that parental perspectives can indeed have a
marked influence on therapeutic decisions [
], and for
AOM a certain proportion of parents actively demand
antibiotics . Additionally, perceived parental
expectations have been identified as one determinant in antibiotic
prescription through pediatricians [
]. Prior studies
indicate that parental socio-demographic factors, such as
educational level, age, or having more than one child can
affect parental knowledge and attitudes towards AOM and
its therapy [
] and thus might also be relevant. It has
been shown that the use of shared decision-making (SDM)
in medical consultation is highly influenced by the parental
health literacy level, indicating that limited health literacy
facilitates a patriarchal relationship between physicians and
parents and increases the tendency to follow physician
]. Moreover, there is evidence that
SDM may lead to less antibiotic prescription and higher
levels of parental satisfaction in the treatment of AOM
]. Therefore, supporting parent-physician interaction
and promoting understanding between parents and
physicians seems a promising approach to enhancing rational
antibiotic prescription in children with AOM.
The aim of this study is to identify parental knowledge,
beliefs, attitudes, and experiences with regard to AOM
and its therapy and thus to gain initial insights into
parental perspectives within the German health care system
and to provide a better understanding of non-medical
determinants of therapeutic decisions, which may help
to enhance SDM in the treatment of children with AOM.
We hypothesize that parental knowledge with regard to
causes of AOM, best treatment of earache and effects of
antibiotics is fairly limited. We further hypothesize that
the high use of antibiotic in children with AOM is due to
parental preference for antibiotics rather than for
nonantibiotic options or a “wait-and-see” strategy. Finally, we
hypothesize that parent-related factors such as previous
AOM-experience or socio-demographics, do have an
impact on decisions related to AOM therapy. By analyzing
these research questions, we aim to contribute valuable
insights to the ongoing discussion in health services
research on whether the parents or the health care
professionals are the ones preferring or demanding specific
treatment options, especially the use of antibiotics.
Study design, participants and setting
An exploratory survey among German-speaking parents
of children aged 2 to 7 years was conducted between
January and October 2013. To reach this target group,
we recruited childcare facilities by convenience sampling
at different sites in the western part of Germany aiming
to involve facilities with different pedagogical concepts
and thus address a wider spectrum of parent types. The
childcare facilities were located in seven towns with
population sizes ranging from cities over a million
inhabitants to medium-sized towns with 20,000 to 100,000
inhabitants. Five childcare facilities were situated in
more rural settings and ten in urban settings. All parents
connected to the addressed childcare facilities were
invited to participate in the survey. A questionnaire with a
cover letter explaining the study objective was
distributed to each parent’s pigeonhole in the childcare facility.
Only one parent per family was supposed to fill in the
questionnaire, even if several children from that family
attended the same childcare facility. Parents were asked
to return the questionnaire anonymously in a sealed
box, which was not opened until data capture and
analysis commenced. All childcare facilities had given
consent to their participation and distributed questionnaires
to the parents. In the specified time period 15 childcare
facilities could be recruited, and overall, 710 parents
were addressed. As there were no comparable studies
available that examined our research questions in a
German sample, a middle-sized effect for calculating
correlations was assumed, which lead to a minimal number of
107 parents to be questioned [
]. By the end of the
recruiting time a sample size of 138 parents representing
a total of 278 children was achieved.
To determine the content and structure of the
questionnaire a qualitative approach was chosen derived from a
concept that was developed by Jónsson and Haraldsson
in 2002 [
]. According to their “parents’ explanatory
model” there are three issues that mainly influence
parents’ perspectives on AOM in their children: (1)
perceptions on the causes of AOM, (2) ideas on disease threats
due to AOM, and (3) attitudes towards the treatment of
AOM (e.g. use of antibiotics). Additionally, we expanded
the domains by conducting a literature search to identify
AOM-related factors that account for parental
knowledge/beliefs, attitudes, and experiences in more detail.
To develop the questionnaire, we used these domains as
a structural and textual basis and derived an expanded
model by discussing the structure of the questionnaire
in an expert group consisting of physicians, nurses,
health economists, and parents. The aim of the
brainstorming was to identify and contextualize topics related
to parental knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and experiences
related to AOM in children. Eligible domains were then
operationalized in a structured discussion process
between the experts.
The questionnaire was then revised based on the
discussion results and pilot-tested in a two-phase pretest to
verify its clarity, comprehensibility and practicability.
Testing was performed using the
concurrent-thinkaloud-method with six participants [
] followed by
standard pretests with eight volunteers [
]. The final
content structure of the questionnaire is presented in
The questionnaire consisted of 15 domains with a total
of 53 items. A translated English version is accessible in
Additional file 1. Each domain consisted of one question
with between one and seven corresponding items.
Eleven of the domains, with a total of 47 items, referred
to aspects of knowledge, attitudes and experiences. They
were formulated as closed questions. Eight of them used
a five-point Likert rating scale [
], the three remaining
domains used categorical scales. The five-point Likert
scale (levels of agreement: from “fully agree” to “don’t
agree at all”) was chosen to allow for gradual
classification of respondents’ opinions [
]. All items
concerning knowledge had the additional answer option
“don’t know”. Two domains referring to respondents’
experiences used a five-point Likert scale for frequency
(from “always” to “never”). We calculated the descriptive
analyses by building the following categories: “generally
agree”, “partly agree”, “do not generally agree” or
“always/often”, “sometimes”, “rarely/never”. Four domains
used categorical scales to record answers on
sociodemographic data. Two domains addressed the current
age of the respondents and their children by asking the
respondents to record the respective ages. Multiple
answers were not permitted in any domain.
The questionnaires were scanned and then processed
using Remark Office OMR™ Version 8. A random
portion of 20 % of the questionnaires was manually checked
for scanning errors. The data were then transferred to
IBM SPSS Statistics version 21 for statistical analysis.
Descriptives were performed using frequencies and
counts, contingency tables were evaluated using Fisher’s
exact test. Since prior studies indicate that there are
sociodemographic determinants of parental AOM knowledge
and attitudes, correlations were calculated using–where
applicable–Pearson’s correlation coefficient, and for
categorical data Spearman’s rho. To adjust for multiple
testing, the Bonferroni-Holm method was applied to control
for the familywise error rate.
As a guiding measure for overall parental experience
on children’s health the group of parents with two or
more children (“several-child parents”) was compared to
the group of parents with one child (“single-child
parents”). The hypothesis that “several-child parents” are
more experienced in children’s health is supported in a
study by Aku-Baker et al., who reported a significant
correlation between the number of children and the
mothers’ knowledge and ability to cope with fever in
their child [
The study was a survey involving questionnaires.
Participation was voluntary and anonymous collection and data
analysis was guaranteed through anonymous questioning,
questionnaire collection, and analysis. All participants
gave consent for the results to be published. In a
prestudy consultation with the ethic committee of the
University Hospital of Cologne, we were advised that an
approval through the ethics committee was not necessary.
Distribution of questionnaires and response rate
The complete number of distributed questionnaires
(n = 710) corresponded exactly to the number of
families with at least one child in the participating
childcare facilities. In total, 138 questionnaires were returned,
which results in a response rate of 19.4 %. These
questionnaires were included in the data analysis.
Table 2 summarizes the socio-demographic characteristics
of the respondents (n = 138) and their children (n = 278).
The majority of children (70.14 %) were aged between 2
and 7 years representing the main age category of interest
for our survey. All but two respondents had at least one
child within this age span.
Parental knowledge/beliefs about AOM, treatment of earache and effects of antibiotics
Aspects of knowledge and beliefs on AOM, treatment of
earache in AOM, and effects of antibiotics in AOM were
surveyed using 19 items. The results are presented in
Fig. 1. For the cause of AOM, 66 % of all respondents
generally agree that bacteria cause AOM. 20.2 %
generally agree that viruses cause AOM. 30.5 % do not
generally agree that viruses cause AOM. A relatively high
proportion of respondents states not to knowing the
cause (11.6 % for bacteria, 15.9 % for viruses), and 4.3
and 10.9 %, respectively, do not answer. The view that
AOM is caused by viruses meets significantly less
approval from parents with increasing age (p < 0.05), with
AOM experience (p < 0.05), who live in an urban
environment (p < 0.05), and who are single parents (p < 0.05).
Concerning symptoms, 92.7 % of the parents generally
agree that intensive earache is associated with AOM,
and 53.4 % generally agree that fever is part of AOM.
With respect to the course of the disease, 8 % generally
agree that AOM resolves spontaneously, whereas 53.6 %
do not generally agree. This view is confirmed by 92.5 %
of the respondents, who generally (45.7 %) and partly
(42.8 %) agree that AOM needs antibiotic treatment.
Most of the parents consider analgesic/antipyretic
drugs (71 %) and nasal drops with decongestant
(68.8 %) as being the best treatment for earache
(generally agree), but 52.1 % view antibiotics as being the best
therapy (generally agree). There is no clear preference
for other treatments (household remedies, naturopathic
remedies, eardrops), and a relatively high proportion of
parents do not know (11.6, 10.2, 16.7 %, respectively).
3.6, 5.8, 4.3 %, respectively, refuse to answer. With
regard to antibiotic effects, 56.6 % generally agree that
antibiotics lead to rapid pain relief and 46.6 % generally
agree that they lead to rapid fever reduction. 8.7 %
generally agree that they reduce AOM relapse, whereas
65.2 % do not generally agree. A risk-reducing effect on
permanent ear damage is generally affirmed by 40.6
and 26.1 % do not know or do not answer. Concerning
undesired effects, the majority generally agrees that
antibiotics affect the gastrointestinal tract (60.1 %)
and possibly become ineffective after frequent use
(77.5 %). Parents holding a university degree believe
significantly less often than those without a university
degree that antibiotics negatively affect the
gastrointestinal tract (p < 0.05) and become inefficient after
frequent use (p < 0.05).
Parental attitudes towards AOM treatment of their own child
Three domains consisting of 15 items asked for parental
attitudes concerning the treatment of AOM. On the
topic of the relevance of contact partners, 89.9 % of the
respondents see the pediatrician’s opinion as being of
great importance (generally agree), whereas 37.7 % rate
the family doctor’s opinion being greatly important
(generally agree). Close relatives, other parents, teachers in
child-care centers and friends who are health care
professionals are mainly rated as being of partly, little or no
importance. Among the sources of information, the
internet takes the first place (46.4 % generally very
helpful), followed by books (33.3 % generally very helpful).
Radio, television, newspapers and magazines are of little
One domain involving five items addresses parental
attitudes towards their willingness to follow a
“wait-andsee” strategy in their child with AOM (Table 3). Almost
40 % of the respondents generally agree with not using
antibiotics until symptoms persist for 2 days (39.1 %) or
worsen overnight (38.4 %). Around the same proportion
does not generally agree to delay antibiotic therapy for
2 days (43.5 %) or in case of severe symptoms (44.2 %).
In the latter case, “several-child parents” would rather give
an antibiotic compared to “single-child parents” (p < 0.01).
In contrast, 32.6 % of parents generally agree to wait even
if the child severely suffers. Previous AOM-experience
does not affect this attitude; neither do any of the
demographic factors (age, education, living environment).
Parental experiences with AOM treatment
Four domains including 12 items refer to parental
experiences with respect to medical treatment of AOM. This
part of the survey only includes respondents who had
experienced at least one episode of AOM in their child
(n = 104, 75.4 %). Forty-three parents have seen less than
three episodes, 61 three or more. In this situation,
60.6 % consulted their pediatrician. 23.1 % (n = 24) gave
Two domains address the questions as to what kind of
medical therapy parents wished to have prescribed for
their child with AOM and what therapy was actually
prescribed by the doctor (Fig. 2). Most often parents ask
for nasal drops with decongestant (62.5 %) and
analgesic/antipyretic drugs (55.8 %). Corresponding actual
prescriptions are 81.7 % for nasal drops and 80.7 % for
analgesic/antipyretic drugs, which turns out to be the
same tendency but to a higher extent compared to
parental requests. Parental requests for naturopathic
drugs and eardrops with a pain-relieving substance are
relatively rare and the same tendencies are found with
respect to the corresponding actual prescriptions.
Comparing the rates of parental requests and actual
prescription of antibiotics, we find a striking
discrepancy: While only 26.9 % of the parents state having
always/often asked for an antibiotic, 70.2 % state that
their child was always/often prescribed one. On the
other hand, 58.7 % report having rarely/never asked
for an antibiotic, while only 15.4 % state having
rarely/never received a prescription. 96.4 % of the
parents who have always/often asked for an antibiotic
(n = 28), always/often received a prescription for one,
whereas 65 % of the parents who rarely/never asked for an
antibiotic (n = 60) always/often received a prescription for
We evaluated possible differences concerning
knowledge and attitudes between parents who wished for an
antibiotic and those who did not by comparing the
answer categories “always/often/sometimes/rarely” (n = 63)
to the category “never” (n = 41): Compared to parents
who never asked for an antibiotic, parents who did wish
for one for their child agree more often that antibiotics
are the best therapy for earache in AOM (p < 0.05) and
lead to rapid pain relief (p < 0.05). In addition, they
disagree more often with the statement that antibiotics
negatively affect the infantile gastrointestinal flora (p < 0.05)
Generally agree = fully/mostly agree
Do not generally agree = don’t really agree/don’t agree at all
aFor better clarity the patterns of behavior are presented in a shortened version
and have less faith in household remedies for treating
earache (p < 0.05). Knowledge concerning cause, symptoms
and course of the disease does not differ between the two
Impact of parental experience of AOM and children’s
To assess the impact of experience with AOM on
parental knowledge and attitudes the answers of
AOMexperienced parents (n = 104) were compared to those of
non-AOM experienced parents (n = 34). Only one in a
total of 34 related items in this comparison differs
significantly: Compared to non-AOM-experienced parents,
AOM-experienced parents agree less often with the
statement that AOM is caused by viruses (p < 0.05).
To investigate the influence of the number of children
per family on the parental responses concerning
knowledge/beliefs, attitudes, and experiences the group of
“several-child parents” (n = 104) was compared to the group of
“single-child parents” (n = 34). Compared to “single-child
parents”, “several-child parents” significantly more often
consider bacteria to cause AOM (p < 0.05) and nasal drops
with decongestant (p < 0.05) and naturopathic remedies
(p < 0.05) to be the best treatment for earache. However,
they agree significantly less often that AOM is associated
with fever (p < 0.05) and that antibiotics are the best
therapy for earache (p < 0.05). For “several-child parents” close
relatives (p < 0.05), other parents (p < 0.01), and teachers
in child-care facilities (p < 0.01) are significantly less
important as contact partners concerning AOM treatment
in their child. Regarding the “wait-and-see” strategy,
“several-child parents” agree considerably more often to
wait and consult the doctor again, when symptoms
worsen (p < 0.05) before giving an antibiotic. However, in
comparison to the “single-child parents” they would rather
immediately give an antibiotic (p < 0.01) when severe
symptoms are present right from the beginning. Regarding
their requests for medical prescriptions for their child with
AOM they do not differ from “single-child parents”.
The aim of our study is to elicit parental
knowledge/beliefs, attitudes, and experiences on AOM and its
treatment in the German health care context. In general, the
results provide first insights on how parents might think
about AOM and experience AOM and its treatment
within the German health care system. With respect to
knowledge/beliefs about AOM, parental answers indicate
a realistic view of key symptoms but show uncertainties
regarding underlying causes and the natural course of
the disease. Knowledge about antibiotics reveals
misconceptions regarding effectiveness in AOM treatment and
a more realistic view on undesired effects. Around 40 %
of all parents are generally willing to follow a
“wait-andsee” strategy, but for severe symptoms, around the same
portion generally prefers the immediate use of an
antibiotic. Experiences with AOM therapy show that
parental request rates for antibiotic treatment strongly differ
from the reported rates of actual prescription, indicating
that antibiotics are around three times more likely to be
prescribed for children with AOM than expected by the
Parental knowledge/beliefs about AOM, treatment of earache and effects of antibiotics
The present results indicate that parents seem to have a
fairly realistic view of key symptoms of the disease, as
the 92.7 % generally agree that earache is associated with
AOM and 54.3 % generally agree that fever is part of
AOM. Uncertainties exist concerning causes and the
natural course of the disease. Sixty-six percent of the
parents generally agree that bacteria cause AOM,
whereas 20.1 % generally agree that viruses cause AOM.
30.5 % do not generally agree that viruses cause AOM.
A relatively high proportion states not to knowing the
cause (11.6 % for bacteria, 15.9 % for viruses), and 4.3
and 10.9 %, respectively, do not answer. Thus, the fact
that viruses are mostly involved in the
pathophysiological mechanisms of AOM [
] does not seem to
be widely known. AOM-experienced parents
significantly less often believe viruses to be involved than
nonAOM-experienced parents. Given the fact that parents
know well that antibiotics are effective against bacteria
], these findings might reflect the experiences of
70.2 % of the AOM-experienced parents in our sample
that their child with AOM has previously been treated
with an antibiotic. The reported proportion of antibiotic
prescriptions in our sample largely corresponds to
findings of other authors [
Special emphasis should be placed on the parental
perception towards the natural course of AOM and the
need for antibiotics. Only 8 % of the respondents in the
present survey generally agree to the statement that
AOM resolves spontaneously, whereas 53.6 % do not
generally agree. These opinions are supported by the
view of 45.7 and 42.8 % of the parents, who, respectively,
generally and partly agree that AOM needs antibiotic
treatment, which indicates that parents might
considerably underestimate the self-limiting character of
uncomplicated AOM in children. This assumption is also
supported by a previous survey reporting a high
proportion of parents who believe antibiotics are necessary
when treating AOM (85 % for Finland, 55 % for The
Most of the parents in our sample generally (45.7 %)
or partly (42.8 %) agree that AOM needs antibiotic
treatment and although 71 % generally agree that analgesic/
antipyretic drugs are the best treatment for earache in
AOM, 52.1 % generally agree antibiotics are the best
pain-relieving therapy in earache. The latter is in
accordance to results from other authors [
] and may be
explained by the finding that 56.6 % of the parents in
our sample generally agree to the statement that
antibiotics lead to rapid pain relief. A fast pain relief is of great
importance to parents, since AOM in children gives rise
to considerable burdens for the affected children as well
as for their families [
]. However, the expected
rapid analgesic effect (within 24 h) in the course of
AOM treatment in children is not confirmed by a
recently published Cochrane analysis [
]. This review
shows that, compared to placebo, antibiotics do not lead
to a significant pain reduction within 24 h. The review
also demonstrated that, compared to a placebo or
watchful waiting (“wait-and-see”), antibiotics do not
reduce severe complications or recurrence rate of AOM.
The majority of the respondents in the present study is
aware of possible harms associated with antibiotic
treatment such as negative effects on the gastrointestinal
tract, which actually is seen in one of every 14
antibiotic-treated children [
], or possible inefficiency
after frequent use (antimicrobial resistance), which is
known to be an increasingly national and international
threat for general public health [
]. The high
parental awareness towards the increased risk of antimicrobial
resistance associated with antibiotic overuse
demonstrated in the present study is consistent with results of
other investigations [
49, 52, 56
In summary, parental knowledge and beliefs
concerning AOM and its treatment and the effects of antibiotics
turn out to be heterogeneous. This might be due to
miscommunication between parents and physicians.
Whatever the reason, these results could serve as a basis for
developing patient-centered and evidence-based
information on the treatment of AOM for parents.
Parental attitudes towards AOM treatment in their own child
Our study shows that the pediatrician is the most
important contact partner for parents who seek medical advice
regarding the treatment of AOM. This finding is
consistent with sickness fund data from Germany on the
utilization of pediatricians or family doctors with sick
children up to the age of seven [
]. However, our study
shows two opposing trends concerning parental attitudes
towards the two different AOM therapeutic concepts
available for treating their child, either allowing a 2-day
observational period before giving an antibiotic or
preferring immediate antibiotic treatment. While almost 40 %
would generally accept the “wait-and-see” strategy and
only give an antibiotic once symptoms have persisted for
2 days or worsened overnight, about the same percentage
would not generally accept this strategy. For severe
symptoms, 44.2 % would immediately administer an antibiotic,
whereby, compared to “single-child parents”,
“severalchild parents” prefer this concept (p < 0.01). These results
indicate that around 40 % of the parents might generally
favor the “wait-and-see” strategy, but might prefer an
immediate antibiotic use if the child is suffering greatly. This
finding suggests that many parents take antibiotics as the
most effective therapy compared to other options. The
relatively high proportion of parents rejecting initial
observation corresponds to the results found by
Finkelstein et al. [
], who conducted a survey dealing with
physicians’ use of initial observation in AOM and the parental
acceptance of this strategy. In contrast to our results, the
investigators additionally identified an association between
educational level and parental acceptance of initial
observation. It should be noted that parental acceptance of
initial observation can be supported when the doctor gives a
brief explanation for this strategy [
]. Adherence is also
enhanced when parents are instructed to seek follow-up
care if the symptoms persist without receiving an
additional prescription for antibiotics (with the advice to hand
it in, if symptoms fail to improve) compared to not
receiving a prescription [
Parental experiences with AOM treatment
International guidelines [
22, 60, 61
] and recently
published national overviews [
] recommend that
children aged 2 years and older with uncomplicated
unilateral AOM receive initial observation including
symptomatic treatment with an analgesic drug as first
line therapy. An antibiotic should be added if symptoms
fail to improve within 48 to 72 h. The use of other
agents, such as naturopathic remedies, eardrops with a
pain-relieving substance, or nasal drops with
decongestant, is not explicitly recommended.
With respect to parental requests for medical
treatment and the reported actual prescriptions, we find two
trends: (1) For analgesic/antipyretic drugs, nasal drops
with decongestant, naturopathic remedies, and
painrelieving eardrops, the rates of parental requests and
actual prescriptions are in high concordance. (2) For
antibiotics, there is a striking discrepancy between reported
parental request rates and reported prescribing rates,
indicating that antibiotics might be around three times
more likely to be prescribed for children with AOM than
expected by the parents. This finding contradicts the
frequently expressed view that parents often put pressure
on doctors to prescribe an antibiotic for their child with
]. We cannot fully exclude the possibility that
there might be a recall bias especially concerning
requests for antibiotics and actual antibiotic prescriptions,
which is much larger than the difference found for all
other treatment options. Nevertheless, in accordance with
our results, other studies have also suggested that
antibiotic overuse is not caused by parental pressure [
Based on the present results, possible reasons for the
marked difference between parental request rates and
doctors’ prescription rates in our sample remain unclear.
The relatively low parental tendency to ask for an
antibiotic might have several reasons, such as having
concerns about antibiotic overuse or antibiotic
] or a tendency not to ask doctors for a
special medication, e.g., because parents trust them
and rely on their decisions [
From the physicians’ perspective, the question arises as
to why actual antibiotic prescription rates in the present
study are as high as reported. It could be concluded that
the “wait-and-see” strategy is applied less than could be
expected based on the guideline recommendations.
Determinants other than objective medical criteria, such as
perceived parental expectation might play a role in antibiotic
29, 63, 66
]. Another reason for overuse of
antibiotics may be diagnostic uncertainty resulting in
over-diagnosis of AOM [
27, 29, 67–69
]. As Täthinen et al.
suggest, treatment practices and parental expectations
seem to interact [
]. Therefore to achieve a change in
treatment practices, both parental views and physicians’
attitudes and practices have to be addressed.
Parental experience of AOM and children’s health
Our analysis demonstrates that prior experience of
AOM does not influence parental knowledge and
attitudes, except that AOM-experienced parents are less
inclined to agree that AOM is caused by viruses.
However, having two or more children (implying more
general experience of children’s health) is associated with
significant differences compared to having a single child:
“Several-child parents” regard nasal drops with
decongestant and naturopathic drugs more often as being the
best therapy for earache. Although they classify
antibiotics less often as best pain treatment, they prefer more
often immediate antibiotic use in cases of severe
symptoms. Thus, general experience of children’s health
might have a stronger influence on parental knowledge
about and attitudes to AOM and its therapy than
concrete experience with AOM. This conclusion is in
accordance with results from research by Kuzujanakis et
], who found a significant association between
having more than one child and correct parental
antibiotic knowledge. However, in contrast, a recently
published study that investigated parental views on
childhood fever found no correlation between having
more than one child and knowledge about antibiotic
effectiveness on bacterial infections [
personal parents’ experience with serious illness in the own
child was significantly associated with more concerns
about health problems related to fever. In our sample
higher parental educational level is not associated with
higher antibiotic knowledge. This result is in contrast to
other studies that see a correlation between parental
education degree and the parental antibiotic knowledge
], the tendency to expect or ask for an antibiotic
] the frequency of antibiotic prescriptions [
and the use of antibiotics with their child [
present data allow no clear conclusions to be drawn on
the reasons for this discrepancy.
The current findings may be of considerable relevance
for several reasons: (1) The results may provide a basis
for a better understanding of parental views on AOM
and its therapy. To confirm these findings, further
investigations with a representative parent sample of parents
in Germany are called for. (2) The results give some
indication of parental concepts and misconceptions on AOM
and its therapy. Since decisions on treatment options may
be influenced by both physicians and parents, the findings
may serve as a basis for developing evidence-based
information for parents to support parental health literacy and
for fostering shared decision-making processes between
parents and physicians. (3) The reported prescription rates
of antibiotics may lead to the assumption that actual
guidelines on AOM management in children, especially
the option of “wait-and-see”, may be used less often than
could be expected. Further investigations are needed to
elucidate this hypothesis.
Strengths and limitations
The main strength of this study is that it represents a
first survey in Germany that investigates
knowledge/beliefs, attitudes, and experiences towards AOM and its
therapy in parents with children aged 2 to 7 years. While
not claiming to be representative, the results provide
initial insights in parental views on AOM and its
treatment. Although the results do not allow generalization
so far, they still might serve as a starting point for further
investigations of the German population. Limitations of
the survey include the small number of respondents, a
low response rate and the convenience sampling strategy
applied for recruiting childcare facilities. Most of the
participants are female and are not single parents, and more
than half of them hold a university degree. Therefore, a
possible selection bias cannot be excluded. On the other
hand, this selection may reflect–at least in part–an
approach to a realistic depiction of the group of parents
who usually deal more often with childcare. The survey
may also be subject to a non-response bias, because it only
includes those childcare facilities and those parents that
voluntarily agreed to participate and we had no means of
analyzing the non-responders. Additionally, due to the
lack of data concerning the time period between the last
experienced AOM and answering the questionnaire, there
might be a recall bias arising from a possible time delay
between experiencing the acute disease and giving
statements from memory. This time delay might bias the
actual experiences and expectations and influence the
We present the results of an exploratory survey in the
German health care system that investigates knowledge/
beliefs, attitudes, and experiences towards AOM and its
therapy in parents with children aged 2 to 7 years.
Parental knowledge and beliefs on AOM and its therapy
reveal uncertainties especially with respect to underlying
causes and the natural course of the disease as well as
misconceptions concerning antibiotic effects in AOM,
indicating that there is a need for more evidence-based
information that improves parents’ health literacy and
enhances SDM in the treatment of children with AOM.
Results on experiences with AOM therapy show that
parental request rates for non-antibiotic options are in
line with actual prescription rates, while antibiotics are
three times less often requested by the parents than
actually prescribed. This finding contradicts the
hypothesis that parents put pressure on doctors to prescribe an
antibiotic for their child with AOM. Further
investigations are needed to clarify these findings.
Additional file 1: Questionnaire (English translation).
AOM: Acute otitis media; ENT specialist: Ear-nose-throat specialist; HI: Health
insurance; SDM: Shared decision making.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
SKF was responsible for writing and completion of the first draft of the
manuscript and prepared all tables and figures, contributed to the
development, pretesting and revising of the questionnaire, and to the
interpretation of the results. MR contributed to the completion of the
manuscript and reviewed before submission. MR contributed to the
development pretesting and revising of the questionnaire, and to the
interpretation of the results. CS was responsible for the statistical data
analyses. DC scanned and processed the questionnaires and contributed to
preparing the statistical data analyses. SA contributed to the completion of
the manuscript and reviewed manuscript before submission. SS contributed
to the completion of the manuscript and reviewed manuscript before
submission. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
All authors are affiliated to the Institute for Health Economics and Clinical
Epidemiology, University Hospital of Cologne and primarily work on health
service research focusing on patient centeredness including health literacy,
shared decision making and patient preferences. Mrs. Prof. Dr. med.
Stephanie Stock is the chairwoman of the German Health Literacy Network
and coordinates the network activities in Germany.
Parts of this work were supported by the AOK Bundesverband, Berlin,
Germany. We thank Benjamin Scheckel for helping with table and figure
adaption to the final manuscript. We thank Kristina Lorrek for helpful
discussions for finalizing the manuscript. We thank Susanne Bassüner for
organizational help performing the survey. We thank all childcare facilities
that gave consent to participate and who considerably supported this survey
by explaining and motivating parents to take part. We also thank all
respondents for participation and thoroughly filling in the questionnaire.
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