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This paper argues that although there has been an increasing use of the term ‘empowerment’ in the nursing literature, the word is sometimes employed uncritically and in inappropriate contexts. The origins of the expression in community development work are noted, in an effort to set the activity of empowerment in its political context and to discuss the implications of this for the relative power of health professionals and service users. A distinction is drawn between the meaning of the term at the individual and the community level and an outline strategy is discussed for nurses who may wish to think through what empowering patients or clients will entail.