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Weaknesses of Nightingale Theory

Updated April 11, 2017

Florence Nightingale is one of history's most renowned medical professionals. Born in Italy in 1820, she served as a nurse in Europe's hospitals and clinics in a time when poor sanitation and technological limitations made nursing especially challenging. Health professionals still celebrate her life and work, and her theories about patient care and public health remain influential. They are not, however, immune to criticism.

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Overview of the Theory

Florence Nightingale's theory conceived of health care not merely as the treatment of disease but the elevation of good health and quality of life in general. The theory emphasised the environmental aspects of care, especially those that nurses could provide, such as constructing a clean, sanitary treatment environment. Her conception of care was patient-centred. An important tenet of the theory is that the patient should be enabled and encouraged to take an active role in his own healing.

Professional Distance

The close patient-nurse relationship that Nightingale theory stresses helps create a nurturing, emotionally supportive environment, but it also risks violating the boundaries of professional distance that health professionals are expected to maintain. The kind of devotional care the theory encourages can be considered unprofessional or even emotionally counterproductive to both patient and nurse. Emotional bonds that become too intimate can make it difficult for a nurse to perform his or job objectively while causing the patient to become overly attached.

Patient Incapacitation

Nightingale theory conceives of the patient as a central agent in his own healing. This may be effective in some cases, but is limited in cases in which the patient is incapacitated or otherwise incapable of working toward his own healing. Some patients may be physically unable to engage to the degree the theory advocates, while others may be psychologically incapable, or may be overwhelmed by the pressure of taking such an active role.


The theory's emphasis on environmental measures -- clean air and water, drainage, light and warmth -- may be effective to an extent but is inherently limited. Healthy environmental conditions can only go so far in treating disease and illness. It says little about the application of medical technology, which was rudimentary but nonetheless existent in Nightingale's time.

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About the Author

David Ferris started writing professionally in 2006 and has been published in several newspapers. He has worked in a variety of fields including education and law. He strives to one day be an authority on all subjects, great and small. Ferris has a Bachelor of Arts in political science.

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