What is Conflict in Health and Social Care

What is Conflict in Health and Social Care?

Conflict Management

Care Learning

4 mins READ

Conflict in health and social care can be defined as a situation where there is a disagreement, dispute, or clash between stakeholders involved in the delivery and receipt of health and social care services.

This can include conflicts amongst healthcare professionals, between healthcare professionals and patients, or between patients and their families.

Given the complexity and high-stakes nature of the sector, conflicts can arise for a variety of reasons.

What are the reasons for conflict in Health and Social Care?

  • Professional Disagreements: Different healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and allied health workers, may have differing opinions on the best course of action for a patient. These disagreements can arise from variances in training, perspectives, or interpretations of medical data.
  • Resource Allocation: Disputes can also emerge over the allocation of limited resources such as funding, staff, or medical equipment. Decisions on how to allocate these resources can be contentious, particularly in a publicly funded system like the NHS.
  • Ethical and Moral Concerns: Health and social care frequently involve complex ethical dilemmas about end-of-life care, consent, autonomy, and the distribution of care. Differing moral perspectives between care providers and patients or their families can lead to conflict.
  • Communication Issues: Poor communication is a significant source of conflict in health and social care. Misunderstandings or lack of clear information can lead to frustration and mistrust. In a multicultural society, language barriers and differing cultural understandings of health and illness can further complicate matters.
  • Patient and Family Expectations: Patients and their families may have expectations about the level and type of care they will receive. When these expectations are not met, it can result in conflicts. This is particularly sensitive in situations where families feel their loved ones are not receiving sufficient care or attention.
  • Organisational Change and Stress: Changes within an organisation, such as new policies, procedures, or leadership, can create stress and resistance among staff. This resistance can manifest as conflict, particularly if staff feel the changes are detrimental to patient care or their professional autonomy.
  • Workload and Stress: Health and social care professionals often work in high-pressure environments with heavy workloads, which can lead to stress and burnout. This stress can exacerbate conflicts, as individuals may have less patience and are more likely to react negatively to perceived slights or disagreements.
  • Power Dynamics: The hierarchical nature of health and social care often results in power imbalances. Conflicts can stem from perceived or real injustices within these dynamics, whether between different levels of staff or between practitioners and patients.

Managing conflict in Health and Social Care

Effective management of conflict is crucial to ensuring the wellbeing of both patients and staff, and the overall effectiveness of health and social care systems. Some strategies include:

  • Open Communication: Encouraging open, honest communication can help to resolve misunderstandings before they escalate into conflicts.
  • Training: Providing conflict resolution and communication skills training for staff can equip them with the tools to manage disputes effectively.
  • Mediation: In some cases, bringing in an impartial mediator can help to resolve conflicts by facilitating a fair and balanced discussion between parties.
  • Support Systems: Providing support for staff, such as counselling services or peer support groups, can help to reduce stress and prevent burnout, which in turn can reduce the likelihood of conflict.
  • Clear Policies: Having clear, well-communicated policies and procedures for conflict resolution can provide a structured approach to managing disputes.

Examples of Conflict in Health and Social Care

Certainly, conflicts in care settings are quite varied due to the diverse nature of health and social care environments.

Here are some examples illustrating different types of conflict that can occur:

Professional Disagreements

Example: A multidisciplinary team meeting discussing a patient’s care plan might reveal differing opinions. A doctor might advocate for a surgical intervention, while a physiotherapist believes that a more conservative, non-surgical approach could yield better long-term outcomes. These professional differences can lead to disputes if not managed constructively.

Resource Allocation

Example: In a public hospital facing budget cuts, a dispute arises over the allocation of nursing staff. The oncology department needs additional staff to handle an increasing number of cancer patients, but the accident and emergency (A&E) department argues that they, too, are understaffed and handling high volumes of critical cases. The senior management must mediate this conflict and make a difficult decision.

Ethical and Moral Concerns

Example: A terminally ill patient expresses a wish to discontinue aggressive treatment and opt for palliative care, but their family is adamantly opposed, believing that every possible measure should be taken to prolong life. Healthcare professionals must navigate this sensitive situation, respecting the patient’s autonomy while managing the family’s emotional distress.

Communication Issues

Example: An elderly patient with dementia is transferred from the hospital to a care home. Due to a breakdown in communication, the care home staff does not receive complete information about the patient’s medication regimen. This leads to delays in administering essential medications and creates conflict between the hospital and care home staff.

Patient and Family Expectations

Example: A family is dissatisfied with the perceived level of attention and care their elderly relative is receiving in a residential care home. They feel their concerns are not being addressed sufficiently by the care home staff, resulting in frequent complaints and escalating tensions.

Organisational Change and Stress

Example: A new policy is introduced in a mental health facility to restructure staff shifts to improve coverage during peak times. Some employees feel the new rota is unfair and disruptive to their work-life balance, leading to grievances being filed against management. Staff morale drops, affecting the overall care provided to patients.

Workload and Stress

Example: In a busy NHS hospital, nurses are working extended shifts due to staffing shortages. The stress and fatigue lead to increased irritability and a higher likelihood of conflicts between team members over minor issues, such as shift responsibilities or patient care decisions.

Power Dynamics

Example: A junior nurse feels that their concerns about a patient’s worsening condition are being dismissed by a senior consultant. The hierarchical dynamics prevent the nurse from feeling confident enough to escalate the issue, leading to frustration and a sense of disempowerment, potentially compromising patient care.

Examples of Conflict Resolution Strategies

  • Open Communication: Encouraging regular team meetings where all members can voice their concerns and suggestions.
  • Training: Offering workshops on cultural competence, communication skills, and conflict resolution techniques.
  • Mediation: Bringing in a trained mediator to facilitate discussions and resolve disputes between conflicting parties.
  • Support Systems: Implementing employee assistance programmes (EAPs) that provide counselling and support for stress management.
  • Clear Policies: Developing and disseminating clear guidelines on conflict resolution procedures and the escalation process.

By acknowledging and addressing these conflicts effectively, care settings can create a more harmonious and effective environment for both staff and patients.


In summary, conflict in health and social care is multifaceted and can arise from a variety of sources.

Addressing it effectively requires a comprehensive approach that considers the needs and perspectives of all stakeholders involved.

This not only helps to ensure high-quality care for patients but also promotes a positive and sustainable working environment for healthcare professionals.

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