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Scand J Caring Sci; 2012; 26; 90–97
Emotional distance to so-called difficult patients
Purpose: To explore nurses’ relationships with patients they regard as being difficult. How do nurses feel about such patients and relate to them, and what are the consequences for nurse and patient?
Design and methods: A qualitative study inspired by hermeneutic phenomenology was conducted. The data were obtained through participant observation and interviewing in a home nursing unit in a Danish municipality. During an initial 3 month period, eighteen participant observations were conducted with 12 nurses during their visits to 96 patients. During the following 3 months, 12 more participant observations were made with three nurses visiting 50 patients. Four of these patients whom the three nurses found difficult were selected and six interviews conducted with these patients. Eleven interviews were conducted with five nurses. Patients’ case records were studied and four meetings with the staff were arranged to discuss the findings. Data collection lasted 18 months in all.
Findings: Three strategies were identified: persuasion, avoidance (emotional distance), and compromise. Interestingly, in the relationship with a particular patient, the avoidance strategy did not necessarily represent the terminal stage, since a nurse could revert to the compromise strategy. Some of the nurses experienced painful emotions regarding these interactions.
Conclusions: The avoidance strategy (emotional distance) resulted in important social and health problems of some patients not being recognized, and some nurses using it expressed the fear of losing contact with their emotional lives. The compromise strategy gave possibilities for dialogue.
Study limitations: The focus was mainly on the nurses and their perspectives. It would be interesting to study in greater detail the perspectives of the patients.