Library >> Browse Articles >> Nurse Management


Patient Advocacy: Barriers and Facilitators

Patient Advocacy: Barriers and Facilitators

Reza Negarandeh, et al / BMC Nursing


The role of patient advocacy is not new for nurses. Historically, patient advocacy has been a moral obligation for nurses. During recent years, nursing literature has been focused on the advocacy role and nursing professions has adopted the term ‘patient advocacy’ to denote an ideal of the practice. Nurses assume that they have an ethical obligation to advocate for their patients. They also frequently describe their judgments and actions on behalf of a patient as “being a patient advocate”.

An examination of advocacy in the nursing literature reflects broad and at times different perspectives. Advocacy has been described in ethical and legal frameworks and, more recently, as a philosophical foundation for practice. It has also been described in terms of specific actions such as helping the patient to obtain needed healthcare, assuring quality of care, defending the patient’s rights, and serving as a liaison between the patient and the health care system.

Although multiple factors influence the need for advocacy, it is generally true that someone in the healthcare environment must assume the role of client advocate, particularly for the client whose self advocacy is impaired. Generally, advocacy aims to promote or reinforce a change in one’s life or environment, in program or service, and in policy or legislation. In healthcare delivery, these activities focus on health conditions, healthcare resources, and the needs of patients and the public.

Advocacy is usually employed by someone powerful on behalf of someone who has no power. In situations of vulnerability, powerlessness, or being involved in difficult circumstances, the individual needs to be advocated. Failure to do so may put the person’s rights, welfare or basic needs in danger. Mallik (1997) concludes from her review that the core condition which demands advocacy action is the vulnerability of the client in two respects: personal vulnerability from illness and also vulnerability to risks inherent in the institutional processes to which the client is exposed in the health care system.

When nurses advocate for patients, they face certain risks and obstacles associated with the settings within which they work. Therefore, there is always the possibility that attempts to advocate for a patient can fail, and that nurses can experience many barriers when addressing the rights, choices, or welfare of their patients.

As Nahigian (2003) noted, despite the fact that a variety of studies have been conducted in many countries, such as Sweden (Segesten, 1993), Korea (Cho, 1997), Australia (Breeding & Turner, 2002), England (Ingram, 1998; Mallik, 1997, 1988; Mallik & Fafferty, 2000; Snowball, 1996) and the United States (Chronkhite, 1991; Cole-Schonlau, 1991; Fetsch, 1991; Hatfield, 1991; Sellin, 1991, 1995); and additional studies in recent years by Hellwig, Yam and DigGiulio, 2003; Kubsch et al., 2004), the factors facilitating and inhibiting patient advocacy have not been completely identified. This points to the importance of conducting research to obtain nurses’ viewpoints on the facilitators and barriers for patient advocacy. This article reports the findings about barriers and facilitators that Iranian registered nurses perceive affecting their advocacy role from a large-scale grounded theory study.

Barriers to Patient Advocacy

Participants cited Powerlessness as a key barrier to advocacy. The following examples illustrate this theme: “We are working as a team, but when a shortcoming or neglect happens at work, as a nurse with sufficient knowledge and practical experiences, I notice it, but we either do not talk about it properly, or would be too cautious whether to mention it or not”.

Several nurses noted that Lack of Law and Code of Ethics act as barriers to advocacy role. Comments that reflected this include: “If there are some rules, we are still unaware of them or we are not mentioned”.

Lack of Support for nurses was identified as another advocacy barrier. Participants felt that they did not receive any support for advocacy action from managers. Supervisors confirmed the nurses’ statements as well. Some examples included the following : “To be an effective advocator, we need to be supported” or similarly another participant claimed that “No one supports us, for instance the head nurse or matron” or another nurse said: “We are not supported well, as a result, the patients can not be supported as well”.

Almost all of the nurses believed that “Physicians leading” was the most important factor that produced obstacles to advocacy. For example one participant believed that: “It is very hard to talk on behalf of the patient, even having good knowledge of the matter. I’m not allowed to say, for example, oh, doctor you made mistake about that patient, in these cases, I don’t know what will happen to me”. Another nurse stated that: “In my opinion, the nurse has the largest part in patient advocacy, but this role is not considered here, because as I said there is a physician-leading system here; so, if we want to do more advocacy, it should be done in a concealed manner”.

Informants also noted that time constraints forced them to revise work patterns to complete many tasks in a limited time. Examples include the following: “When you have a trolley full of medicine and you are still in room 1, perhaps a patient wants to have a conversation but time is pressing and there is still a long way to go before the job is finished, we cannot spare time for the patients even if we want to, time is very important”.

Limited communication was also viewed as an important barrier for nurses to be as patient advocate. For example: “I have to say with the situation at the intensive care unit (ICU) and the patients we have, we don’t have much time to sit down and listen to our patients, however listening to their expressions, talking about their conditions, family and disease courses can promote patient’s spiritual status and reduce patient’s stress”. Or, “Now, the close relationship with patients has been replaced with recording processes. At first, nurses must have relationship with the patient and seek his/her needs to achieve patient’s affairs” or “More time must be allocated to listen to the patient’s words in detail. But instead, we just watch them and do certain routine treatments for them and at the end we write our report and that is it”.

All of the nurses assumed that being patient advocate had unavoidable risks for advocators. Thus “Risk of advocacy” became a key determinant for accepting or refusing advocacy role. The following explanations illustrate this theme: “Who supports nurses’ legally? You, as a teacher, would ask my nurse to become an advocator for the patient. If the nurse does so and then the hospital president sacks him/her, who will support this nurse?” or another participant believed that, “It is just impossible, you have absolutely no right to complain, and if you do so, your 30 hours overtime payment would be reduced to ten hours to stop your complaining”.

Nurses that participated in this study cited “Loyalty to peer” as a barrier to patient advocacy too. The subsequent examples explain this feeling: “Listen to me, when we work together as a group, we cannot spoil each other in the system”.

Finally “Lack of motivation” was also described as a critical barrier. The following example indicates this barrier: “So, all personnel are working with frustration and reluctance … it is inevitable, the important point is that the management method and staffing strategies are the strongest determinants to quality care and advocacy”.

Advocacy Facilitators

Informants also spoke about the factors that facilitated the practice of patient advocacy. The development of functional nurse-patient relationship was identified as a key factor to facilitating advocacy. Nurse-patient relationship recurred more than other themes in this study. From the participants’ perspectives, establishing an appropriate relationship between a nurse and patients was necessary to patient advocacy. The quality of this relationship was described in the following examples: “I try to have a good relationship with them, listen to them carefully, and do as they wish” or “Most of our patients have one or more family members to accompany them. For instance, an old man who has had an eye surgery may also be cared by his daughter or son, but I strongly feel that my relationship with the patient is more important than family relationship for him and gives a more sense of security to him”. Participants 11 can explain this better “… but the nurse-patient relationship is really close, very often nurses have closer relationship with their patients than their children …”.

Recognizing and paying attention to patients’ needs and conditions” was another factor that could facilitate patient advocacy. All nurses believed that comprehensive patient assessment enabled them to understand patients’ real needs and be more effective in patient advocacy. They also believed that patients had different and varying needs and conditions; therefore, it was necessary for nurses to become aware of patient’s needs and conditions in order to act on behalf of the patient. In this respect one participant said: “In spite of the fact that the social worker may refrain from supporting patients on the grounds that the patient has a family and enough resources, the patient needs a social worker. We are in the best position to persuade a social worker role that, for example, this patient has a broken up family and so on … I mean we are frequently encountered with the issues the patient and his/her family may have. So, you, as a nurse, must assess the patient’s situation and refer him/her to relevant social support resources”.

Another theme that emerged from the data collected was “Nurses’ responsibility” which could facilitate the patient advocacy. In the participants’ narratives, nurses’ responsibility and accountability were two factors that had an effect on advocacy role. Also, they believed that nurse’s conscience, commitment to professional code of ethics, and respect of patient rights could facilitate patient advocacy. The subsequent examples explain this: “When my patient needs some medications and she/he doesn’t have it, I call other wards frequently. For example, I had a child patient from Afghanistan and I paid attention to him very much, because he was a very little guy. When his antibiotic finished, I looked for medication in all wards of the hospital to provide it” and “I think that the origin of advocacy is mainly in conscience, I feel it stems from nurses’ conscience and as well; it is strongly interconnected with this profession”.

“Physician as a colleague” this mean that taking team approach to coordinating patient care and services was reported as a crucial factor, as the following examples illustrate: “But some doctors if you tell them what they are doing is wrong, they don’t like it, in other words, some worry to tell them and in the case they feel they get offended and act harshly, but some physicians easily accept our comments”. Many nurses noted the importance of developing a friendly relationship with physicians as a helpful strategy. “Over the years I have developed a respectful relationship with all the physicians and they accept what I say”. Another nurse believed “This mutual collaboration between nurse and physician usually culminates in patient advocacy”.

All nurses described the “Knowledge and skills” are essential to advocacy. Clinical knowledge and some skills were reported as crucial factors to effective advocacy. Participants in this study also believed that in-service education can improve their knowledge and skill that is needed to patient advocacy. One of participants said “In order to the nurse to be better advocate, he/she must improve his/her knowledge, and advance braveness and self esteem …”.


This study illustrates the barriers and facilitators to patient advocacy from the Iranian registered nurses’ perspectives. Participants in this study believed that in these circumstances and by taking into consideration the barriers mentioned, taking an advocacy role is difficult for nurses. Therefore, they make decisions and act as a patient advocate in any situation concerning patient needs and the status of barriers and facilitators. In most cases, they cannot act at an optimal level, instead they accept only what they can do, what we call this as ‘limited advocacy’. Witts (1986, 1992) and Courtney (1985), in their study on ethical decision-making found that nurses in the United Kingdom did act as advocates, but that it happened informally and was taken up to the extent that circumstances allowed. Chambliss (1996) who spent several years observing nurses who practiced in hospital settings has noted, “The nurse often knows what is the right thing to do, but is prevented from accomplishing this by institutional obstacles”. Such obstacles can rarely be overcome by the efforts of single individuals.

It can be concluded that advocacy is contextually complex, and is a controversial and risky component of any nursing practice. Different workplaces and cultures may affect the findings of the study. This inquiry is a description of the barriers and facilitators of advocacy from the Iranian nurses’ perspective, nurses working in others areas may have different views, or may experience similar barriers and facilitators to patient advocacy. Therefore, additional research studies are needed to further our understanding of the barriers and facilitators of patient advocacy in nursing. It is recommended that future quantitative research be conducted to identify the correlation between the identified barriers and facilitators and the use of advocacy, if any. In addition specific knowledge and behaviors that support the advocacy role should be examined.

The material provided above was extracted from a larger article and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution License

NursingLink School Finder

Save time in your search for a degree program. Use NursingLink's School Finder to locate schools online and in your area.

* In the event that we cannot find a program from one of our partner schools that matches your specific area of interest, we may show schools with similar or unrelated programs.