Undertaking risk and relational work to manage vulnerability: Acute medical patients’ involvement in patient safety in the NHS

E. Sutton*, G. Martin, H. Eborall, C. Tarrant

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Over the last decade a wealth of studies have explored the way that patients are involved in patient safety internationally. Most begin from the premise that patients can and should take on the role of identifying and reporting safety concerns. Most give little attention, however, to the impact of the patient's health status and vulnerability on their ability to participate in their safety. Drawing on qualitative interviews with 28 acute medical patients, this article aims to show how patients’ contributions to their safety in the acute medical context are less about involvement as a deliberate intervention, and more about how patients manage their own vulnerability in their interactions with staff. Our analysis is underpinned by theories of vulnerability and risk. This enables us to provide a deeper understanding of how vulnerability shapes patients’ involvement in their safety. Acute medical patients engage in reassurance-seeking, relational and vigilance work to manage their vulnerability. Patients undertake reassurance seeking to obtain evidence that they can trust the organisation and the professionals who work in it and relational and vigilance work to manage the vulnerability associated with dependence on others and the unpredictability of their status as acute medical patients. Patients are made responsible for speaking up about their care but simultaneously, by virtue of the expectations of the sick role and their relational vulnerability, encouraged to remain passive, compliant or silent. We show how risk frames the extent to which patients can activate their role in creating patient safety at the point of care. Foregrounding the theory of vulnerability, the concept of the sick role and the relationship of both to risk offers new insights into the potentials and limits of patient involvement in patient safety in the acute care context.

Original languageEnglish
Article number115729
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Publication statusPublished - 31 Mar 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Acute medical patients
  • Dependency
  • Patient involvement in patient safety
  • Risk
  • Vulnerability


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