BACKGROUND: The management of diabetes self-care is largely the responsibility of the patient. With more emphasis on the prevention of complications, adherence to diabetes self-care regimens can be difficult. Diabetes self-care requires the patient to make many dietary and lifestyle changes. This study will explore patient perceptions of diabetes self-care, with particular reference to the burden of self-care and coping strategies among patients. METHODS: A maximum variation sample of 17 patients was selected from GP practices and diabetes clinics in Ireland to include patients with types 1 and 2 diabetes, various self-care regimens, and a range of diabetes complications. Data were collected by in-depth interviews; which were tape-recorded and transcribed. The transcripts were analysed using open and axial coding procedures to identify main categories, and were reviewed by an independent corroborator. Discussion of the results is made in the theoretical context of the health belief, health value, self-efficacy, and locus of control frameworks. RESULTS: Patients' perceptions of their self-care varied on a spectrum, displaying differences in self-care responsibilities such as competence with dietary planning, testing blood sugar and regular exercise. Three patient types could be distinguished, which were labeled: "proactive manager," a patient who independently monitors blood glucose and adjusts his/her self-care regime to maintain metabolic control; "passive follower," a patient who follows his/her prescribed self-care regime, but does not react autonomously to changes in metabolic control; and "nonconformist," a patient who does not follow most of his/her prescribed self-care regimen. CONCLUSION: Patients have different diabetes self-care coping strategies which are influenced by their self-care health value and consequently may affect their diet and exercise choices, frequency of blood glucose monitoring, and compliance with prescribed medication regimens. Particular attention should be paid to the patient's self-care coping strategy, and self-care protocols should be tailored to complement the different patient types.