Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Nurse-patient communication in primary care diabetes management: an exploratory study

Lindsay Macdonald1*, Maria Stubbe1, Rachel Tester1, Sue Vernall1, Tony Dowell1, Kevin Dew2, Tim Kenealy3, Nicolette Sheridan3, Barbara Docherty3, Lesley Gray1 and Debbie Raphael3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice, University of Otago, Wellington South 6242, New Zealand

2 School of Social and Cultural Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington 6012, New Zealand

3 University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

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BMC Nursing 2013, 12:20  doi:10.1186/1472-6955-12-20

Published: 13 September 2013



Diabetes is a major health issue for individuals and for health services. There is a considerable literature on the management of diabetes and also on communication in primary care consultations. However, few studies combine these two topics and specifically in relation to nurse communication. This paper describes the nature of nurse-patient communication in diabetes management.


Thirty-five primary health care consultations involving 18 patients and 10 nurses were video-recorded as part of a larger multi-site study tracking health care interactions between health professionals and patients who were newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Patients and nurses were interviewed separately at the end of the 6-month study period and asked to describe their experience of managing diabetes. The analysis used ethnography and interaction analysis.

In addition to analysis of the recorded consultations and interviews, the number of consultations for each patient and total time spent with nurses and other health professionals were quantified and compared.


This study showed that initial consultations with nurses often incorporated completion of extensive checklists, physical examination, referral to other health professionals and distribution of written material, and were typically longer than consultations with other health professionals. The consultations were driven more by the nurses’ clinical agenda than by what the patient already knew or wanted to know. Interactional analysis showed that protocols and checklists both help and hinder the communication process. This contradictory outcome was also evident at a health systems level: although organisational targets may have been met, the patient did not always feel that their priorities were attended to. Both nurses and patients reported a sense of being overwhelmed arising from the sheer volume of information exchanged along with a mismatch in expectations.


Conscientious nursing work was evident but at times misdirected in terms of optimal use of time. The misalignment of patient expectations and clinical protocols highlights a common dilemma in clinical practice and raises questions about the best ways to balance the needs of individuals with the needs of a health system. Video- recording can be a powerful tool for reflection and peer review.