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Discussions of patient-centred care and patient autonomy in bioethics have tended to focus on the decision-making context and the process of obtaining informed consent, leaving open the question of how patients ought to be counselled in the daily maintenance of their health and management of chronic disease. Patient activation is an increasingly prominent counselling approach and measurement tool that aims to improve patients’ confidence and skills in managing their own health conditions. The strategy, which has received little conceptual or ethical analysis, raises important questions about how clinicians ought to foster confidence and a sense of control in their patients without exposing them to blame, stigma and other harms. In this paper, we describe patient activation, discuss its relationship to personal responsibility, autonomy and health disparities, and make recommendations regarding its use and measurement.