User participation in a Municipal Acute Ward in Norway: dilemmas in the interface between policy ideals and work conditions
User participation has become an increasingly important principle in health care over the last few decades. Healthcare professionals are expected to involve patients in treatment decisions. Clear guidance as to what this should entail for professionals in clinical work is not accounted for in legislation. In this study, we explore how healthcare professionals in a Municipal Acute Ward perceived, experienced and performed user participation. The ward represents a new short-time service model for emergency assistance in Norway. We focused on the challenges the professionals faced in clinical work and how they dealt with these. Data were drawn from qualitative interviews with 11 healthcare professionals and from 10 observations in relation to previsits and physician's rounds in the ward. Transcripts of interviews and observations were analysed using a method for systematic text condensation. In the analysis, we applied Lipsky's perspective on dilemmas of street-level bureaucrats. The results show that that the professionals perceived user participation as an important and natural part of their work. They experienced difficulties related to collaboration with patients, caregivers, and professionals in other services, and with framework conditions that caused conflicting expectations, responsibility, and priorities. The professionals seemed to take a pragmatic approach to user participation, managing it within narrow perspectives. Our study indicates that the participants dealt with the dilemmas at the cost of user participation. The results demonstrate that there is a gap between the outlined health policy and the professionals' opportunities to fulfil this policy in clinical work regarding user participation. The policy decision-makers should recognise the balancing work required of healthcare professionals to deal with difficulties in clinical work. The knowledge that professionals possess as performers of services and the need for valuing in policy processes should be acknowledged.