Why Is Patient Autonomy Important?

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A nurse practitioner gestures at documents on a clipboard while speaking with a patient.When a person is diagnosed with an illness, their health care provider has a responsibility to explain the potential benefits, risks, and side effects of each available treatment option in a comprehensive and unbiased manner. Equipped with this information, the person is then able to make an autonomous decision about which treatment they want to pursue.

Autonomy refers to a person’s ability to make decisions or take action independently. In the context of health care, patient autonomy emphasizes the patient’s right to make decisions about their care without undue influence from their provider.

As health care leaders, nurse practitioners play a pivotal role in supporting patient autonomy and empowering patients to make informed decisions about their health care. Nurse practitioners also serve as advocates for their patients, ensuring that their preferences and values are at the forefront of the care delivery process.

Advanced nursing programs can help nurses better understand the importance of patient autonomy and the role of nurses in promoting and protecting it.

What Is Patient Autonomy?

As a pillar of medical ethics, patient autonomy is a crucial concept that all health care providers should understand.

Patient autonomy refers to the fundamental right of individuals to actively participate in decisions concerning their health care, allowing them to make informed choices aligned with their values and goals.

Health care providers have a professional and moral obligation to empower patients to make informed decisions about their care, free from coercion or undue influence. Recognizing patients’ autonomy requires health care professionals to communicate with patients about their health conditions as well as medication and treatment options in a direct, truthful, and unbiased way.

The Importance of Patient Autonomy

Autonomy is not only a fundamental right but also a crucial component of providing high-quality health care. An environment where patient autonomy is respected yields numerous benefits to both patients and providers:

Patient-Centered Care

Patient autonomy is a cornerstone of patient-centered care, an approach that emphasizes tailoring health care decisions and interventions to the individual patient’s needs, preferences, and values.

Respecting their patients’ autonomy enables health care providers to deliver care that is sensitive to personal and cultural differences, which fosters more inclusive and equitable care.

Informed Decision-Making

By acknowledging their patients’ autonomy, providers empower them to actively participate in discussions and decisions about their care. Involving patients in these conversations ensures that they are well informed about their conditions and treatment options, including any potential risks.

Treatment Adherence

When patients are actively involved in decision-making and have a clear understanding of the reasoning behind a recommended treatment plan, they are more likely to adhere to the plan, which can ultimately lead to improved health outcomes.

Patient Safety

Patients who feel empowered to speak up and actively participate in their care are more likely to ask questions, seek clarification, and provide valuable insights to their providers regarding their health status and treatment. This collaborative approach can help identify and mitigate potential errors or oversights, ultimately enhancing patient safety.

Respect and Trust

Respecting patients’ autonomy demonstrates a provider’s commitment to treating patients as individuals with unique needs and preferences.

When patients feel respected and valued as partners in their care, it fosters trust and strengthens the provider-patient relationship. This, in turn, promotes open communication, encourages patients to share important information, and enhances overall patient satisfaction.

How Can Nurses Support Patient Autonomy?

Nurses serve as patient advocates and are often the primary point of contact for patients, particularly nurse practitioners who act as primary care providers. As such, they play a vital role in supporting and promoting patient autonomy.

The key component of patient autonomy is informed choice. Nurses keep patients apprised of all relevant information regarding their diagnosis and treatment. They can employ various strategies and practices to ensure that patients are actively involved in their care decisions and have the necessary information to make informed choices.

Here are seven ways in which nurses can support patient autonomy:

1. Open and Respectful Communication

Nurses can create an environment that encourages open and respectful communication with patients. This involves actively listening to patients’ concerns, asking open-ended questions, and providing clear and concise information about their conditions and treatment options, including any potential risks or side effects.

By fostering open communication, nurses empower patients to express their preferences, ask questions, and actively participate in their care.

2. Informed Consent

Nurses have a responsibility to ensure that patients have a thorough understanding of all aspects of a potential treatment plan before consenting to it. They can support patients’ autonomy by explaining the benefits and drawbacks of different treatment options, discussing alternative approaches, and addressing any questions or concerns they have.

Obtaining informed consent from patients demonstrates respect for their autonomy and enables them to make decisions based on a comprehensive understanding of their situation.

3. Shared Decision-Making

Collaborative decision-making is a key component of patient autonomy. This shared decision-making approach ensures that patients’ values, beliefs, and personal circumstances are considered, resulting in care plans that align with their individual needs and preferences.

4. Patient Education

Nurses can provide patients with educational resources, including written materials and evidence-based information about their condition and treatment options. By equipping patients with information, nurses enable them to effectively weigh their options.

5. Collaboration with Interpreters

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), over 25 million people in the U.S. (roughly 9% of the population) are considered to have limited English proficiency (LEP). The AMA also reports that the use of professional interpreters in medical settings improves the quality of care for patients with LEP, resulting in “higher patient satisfaction, fewer errors in communication, reduced disparities in utilization of services, and improved clinical outcomes.”

Hospitals and other health care settings are legally required to provide accommodations for patients with LEP. Nurses can help patients with LEP by working closely with medical interpreters and translators to ensure that patients communicate their needs and understand their diagnoses and treatment options.

6. Advocacy

Nurses serve as advocates for their patients, ensuring that their voices are heard and respected. They can do this by supporting patients in asserting their preferences, helping them navigate complex health care systems, and facilitating communication between patients and other health care providers.

7. Continuum of Care

Nurses can support patient autonomy by ensuring that patients’ preferences and decisions are communicated effectively across the continuum of care provided in different health care settings and among various health care professionals.

By facilitating the transfer of information and involving patients in care transitions, nurses enable patients to maintain control over their health care decisions and ensure that their autonomy is upheld throughout their health care journey.

Promote Patient Autonomy in Your Nursing Practice

Embracing patient autonomy not only ensures that patients have a voice in their health care decisions but also reinforces the principles of respect, trust, and collaboration between patients and providers.

Nurses can create an environment that supports patient-centered care, shared decision-making, and improved outcomes by recognizing patient autonomy as a crucial element of ethical health care.

Are you interested in supporting patient autonomy and fostering collaborative decision-making as an advanced nursing professional? The Regis College online BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice program can help you develop the critical-thinking skills and hands-on experience you need to promote patient autonomy in a variety of care settings.

Learn more about how Regis College’s online nursing programs can help you advance your nursing career.

Recommended Readings

How DEI Training in Health Care Can Improve Patient Outcomes

Nurse Time Management: Tips and Techniques for Nurses and Nursing Students

Telehealth Nursing Tips: How to Effectively Communicate with Patients


AMA Journal of Ethics, “What Should Clinicians Do When a Patient’s Autonomy Undermines Her Being Treated Equitably?”

Critical Care Explorations, “Critical Ethics: How to Balance Patient Autonomy with Fairness When Patients Refuse Coronavirus Disease 2019 Testing”

Excel Medical, “What Is Patient Autonomy in Health Care?”

Journal of Emergency Medical Services, “A Discussion on Patient Autonomy in EMS”

ONS Voice, “Support Patients’ Autonomy and Cultural Choices”

The Patient Safety Company, “The Impact of Continuum of Care on Patient Safety”

World Health Organization, “Autonomy in Health Decision-Making — a Key to Recovery in Mental Health Care”