OBJECTIVE: Throughout health care literature, vulnerability is widely accepted as a potential issue for all patients yet the consensus on the meaning of and practical strategies to reduce or manage these 'harmful agents' in the clinical context are rarely offered. Three main themes emerge from the related literature which can be further refined into general terms of; social vulnerability--a person's basic statistical data in relation to their potential for illness; psychological vulnerability--the actual or potential harm to the identity of self and/or other emotional effects such as anxiety or stress caused by the ailment or treatment; and physical vulnerability--which refers to the actual physiological state where an individual is susceptible to further morbidity or mortality. SETTING: Acute care facilities. PRIMARY ARGUMENT: Although there is acknowledgment within the literature that individuals will experience some form of vulnerability when hospitalised, the complexity of what defines vulnerability for individuals causes further problems for patients and health professionals alike. CONCLUSIONS: This paper attempts to define vulnerability within the context of Western health care systems and raises the following issues: all states of vulnerability are accurate and appropriate in the context of the study or incidence alluded to, but further discussion and research is required to achieve a consensus to when, how, why and who is vulnerable. It is this recognition of the potentially differing classifications of vulnerability and the particular contexts that can be used that may assist nurses and other health care professionals with, not only problems associated with a patient's hospitalisation, but in the implementation of appropriate strategies to individual patient's cases.