We need to talk about purpose: a critical interpretive synthesis of health and social care professionals' approaches to self-management support for people with long-term conditions.

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Health policies internationally advocate 'support for self-management', but it is not clear how the promise of the concept can be fulfilled.


To synthesize research into professional practitioners' perspectives, practices and experiences to help inform a reconceptualization of support for self-management.


Critical interpretive synthesis using systematic searches of literature published 2000-2014.


We summarized key insights from 164 relevant papers in an annotated bibliography. The literature illustrates striking variations in approaches to support for self-management and interpretations of associated concepts. We focused particularly on the somewhat neglected question of the purpose of support. We suggest that this can illuminate and explain important differences between narrower and broader approaches. Narrower approaches support people to manage their condition(s) well in terms of disease control. This purpose can underpin more hierarchical practitioner-patient communication and more limited views of patient empowerment. It is often associated with experiences of failure and frustration. Broader approaches support people to manage well with their condition(s). They can keep work on disease control in perspective as attention focuses on what matters to people and how they can be supported to shape their own lives. Broader approaches are currently less evident in practice.


Broader approaches seem necessary to fulfil the promise of support for self-management, especially for patient empowerment. A commitment to enable people to live well with long-term conditions could provide a coherent basis for the forms and outcomes of support that policies aspire to. The implications of such a commitment need further attention.

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