Power imbalance between nurses and patients: a potential inhibitor of partnership in care

J Clin Nurs. 2003 Jul;12(4):501-8. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2702.2003.00757.x.


The Patient's Charter identifies the need for nurses to respect patients' rights to influence their care, and contemporary nursing practice advocates that nurses work in partnership with patients. Hence nurses are encouraged to share their power and facilitate empowerment in their patients by giving them information and support. However, the literature indicates that nurses are not very successful in making patients feel empowered to make informed decisions. This study, conducted in 1998, provides some answers as to why this may be the case. The aim of the study was to explore and describe nurses' and patients' views regarding partnership in care in hospital. Using the grounded theory approach, participants were drawn from four hospitals in Western Australia. A purposive sample of 33 nurses and 32 patients were interviewed in-depth. Participant observation was also conducted and field notes were written. The interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed using the constant comparative method. The findings showed that nurses viewed involving patients in care as requiring them to give patients information and to share their decision-making powers with them. With the exception of a few, the majority of nurses were unwilling to share their decision-making powers. This created a situation of power imbalance with subsequent little patient input. Factors identified included nurses' beliefs that they "know best", the view that patients lacked medical knowledge and the perceived need for nurses to hold onto their power and maintain control. If nurses and patients are to work as partners, it is important that nurses make every effort to equalize the power imbalance. One way to do this is for nurses to share and give information to patients readily and to be open in their communication with them.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Australia
  • Communication
  • Ethics, Nursing
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Job Satisfaction
  • Male
  • Nurse-Patient Relations / ethics*
  • Nursing Process
  • Patient Care Planning / ethics*
  • Patient Rights
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Power, Psychological*
  • Sampling Studies
  • Surveys and Questionnaires