Nurses’ opportunistic interventions with patients in relation to smoking


  • Rosemary E. Whyte BA PhD RGN RCNT RNT,

  • Hazel E. Watson MN PhD RGN RMN RNT,

  • Jean McIntosh BSc PhD RGN OBE FRCN

Rosemary E. Whyte,
Caledonian Nursing and Midwifery Research Centre,
Glasgow Caledonian University,
Glasgow, UK.


Aim.  This paper reports a study exploring nurses’ provision of opportunistic health education on smoking for hospital patients.

Background.  Smoking cessation guidelines recommend assessment of patients’ smoking habits and provision of smoking cessation advice when possible, and highlight the importance of the role of nurses in health promotion and health education. In the past, nurses have been criticized for lack of knowledge, skills and confidence in relation to health education and the perception that it is additional to, rather than integrated with, nursing care.

Methods.  A qualitative case study design was selected to explore the health education practice of 12 nurses working in acute wards in three general hospitals in Scotland. Data were collected in 2000 through non-participant observation, semi-structured interviews and the use of a radio-microphone to record nurse–patient interactions. The data analysis was guided by four key elements of health education practice: ‘the teachable moment’, ‘readiness to learn’, ‘the provision of health information’ and ‘oral communication’.

Findings.  Smoking was part of the nurses’ agenda, as most recognized opportunities to introduce health education on smoking during nursing care, suggesting a tentative move towards the integration of health education with nursing care. Evidence from patients’ interactions indicated ample opportunity for nurses to provide smoking-related health information. However, the content of nurses’ interactions on smoking was variable, with some limited by poor communication skills and inadequate knowledge of smoking and smoking cessation. The context of the interactions was also important in understanding some of the restrictions on conversational progress.

Conclusions.  Nurses require the knowledge and skills to perform a health education role, and the inclusion of smoking cessation guidelines in nursing curricula would contribute to this. Where patients are in hospitals for short periods of time, opportunistic health education on smoking needs to be introduced as the basis for more specialist intervention.