Going Beyond the Zone of a Therapeutic Nurse-Patient Relationship

Article Categories: Legal and Ethics & Nurse On the Job

Patient care is always a part of a nurse’s life, which means that nurse-patient interaction is inevitable. But because the line between therapeutic and social relationships becomes blurry, nurses may find themselves in a dilemma, unable to control the situation and their feelings, and cross the line in the process.

Trust, compassion and mutual respect should rule the nurse-patient interaction so that it is therapeutic to improve the patient’s health, but sometimes nurses fall into temptation, make poor decisions, and disregard professionalism and personal morals. Here are some situations where the boundaries have been crossed in different levels:

- receiving gifts from patients
- doing small favors for patients outside of duty hours (e.g., keeping them company, responding to a neighbor’s
call for help regarding a nursing care they need)
- visiting a patient after they have been discharged just to know their progress
- disclosing a patient’s personal information
- giving the patient personal contact numbers
- inappropriate restraints
- physical and emotional abuse
- sexual misconduct
- dating a patient while still seeking care, or even right after discharge
- having a sexual or romantic relationship with a patient
- sexual advances or suggestions to the patient or vice versa where the nurse consents
- verbal seduction

Of the many instances where nurse-patient relationships become inappropriate, nurses being attracted to patients and then acting on their interest is perhaps one of those behaviors that have early tell-tale signs that they are too close to the edge. Here are some warning signs that necessitate a review of the nurse’s behavior:

- often thinking about the patient even after duty
- spending free time with the patient or spending a lot of time with the patient even if other patients’ needs are
more of a priority
- showing favoritism
- sharing personal information and concerns
- needing to dress more attractively when anticipating interaction with the patient
- asking to be assigned to the patient

Nurses are not the only ones who show their vulnerability. On the other hand, a patient’s behavior can also signal that they are crossing the boundary lines, too:

- the patient demands that they are assigned to the nurse
- they show over-dependence
- they keep asking about the whereabouts of the nurse, or other information from the staff
- they give the nurse special attention, compliments, and gifts

The biggest problem with crossing the boundaries of nurse-patient relationship is that it reduces the benefits of nursing care to the patient involved and the others in their care. It is also clearly a sign of disregard for the Nursing Code of Ethics. These are the reasons why boundary violations are never acceptable.

When nurses find themselves in a situation where they are going beyond the zone of helpfulness, they must be aware of themselves and be quick to review and stop their behavior.

They should seek their supervisor’s help and refer to institutional policies. In receiving gifts, for example, some hospitals will allow small tokens to be received with gratitude right before discharge.

For other behaviors, nurses may check with their respective Board of Nursing and the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. These organizations define professional boundaries and give specific instances where behaviors already are deemed inappropriate.

Nurses also have a duty to report sexual misconduct to the supervisor or the Nurse Manager. These behaviors are never tolerated. Proper documentation must be made, and the misconduct duly reported to the board of nursing, which can take immediate action such as revoke their license.

RNs must also remember that if they became self-aware and educated on professional boundaries, they can prevent violations from harming their patients and their professional career.


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