• caring;
  • experiences;
  • hospitals;
  • literature review;
  • meta-ethnography;
  • nurses;
  • professional-patient relations;
  • qualitative research;
  • systematic review



To synthesize evidence and knowledge from published research about nurses' experiences of nurse-patient relationships with adult patients in general, acute inpatient hospital settings.


While primary research on nurses' experiences has been reported, it has not been previously synthesized.



Data sources

Published literature from Australia, Europe, and North America, written in English between January 1999–October 2009 was identified from databases: CINAHL, Medline, British Nursing Index and PsycINFO.

Review methods

Qualitative studies describing nurses' experiences of the nurse-patient relationship in acute hospital settings were reviewed and synthesized using the meta-ethnographic method.


Sixteen primary studies (18 papers) were appraised as high quality and met the inclusion criteria. The findings show that while nurses aspire to develop therapeutic relationships with patients, the organizational setting at a unit level is strongly associated with nurses' capacity to build and sustain these relationships. The organizational conditions of critical care settings appear best suited to forming therapeutic relationships, while nurses working on general wards are more likely to report moral distress resulting from delivering unsatisfactory care. General ward nurses can then withdraw from attempting to emotionally engage with patients.


The findings of this meta-ethnography draw together the evidence from several qualitative studies and articulate how the organizational setting at a unit level can strongly influence nurses' capacity to build and sustain therapeutic relationships with patients. Service improvements need to focus on how to optimize the organizational conditions that support nurses in their relational work with patients.