The frequency and function of passive voice use in nurses' notes

UNCW Author/Contributor (non-UNCW co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Kelly L. Porter (Creator)
The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW )
Web Site:
Colleen Reilly

Abstract: Health care providers of all professions depend on written information to communicate with those not co-present during various phases of patient care, thus making communications about patients of key importance to understanding what sorts of discourses are prevalent and valued in hospitals. While physicians’ written discourse has enjoyed some attention, there has been very little research done on written nursing discourse, a critical component of patient care, from the perspective of organizational communication. For this pilot study of nurses’ written communications, I examined 34 nurses' patient progress notes from computer-based in-patient records obtained from a local regional medical center. Because extensive use of the passive voice is a defining characteristic of medical discourse, I chose to focus my discourse analysis of nurses’ notes on the frequency and function of its use. Furthermore, an analysis of passive voice use is salient because the passive voice has for so long been an object of hotly contested debate in the fields of English composition and technical and organizational communications. Of 335 transitive verb phrases, with human agents, in the notes, I found that 48.96% were in the passive voice. Of the passive verbs, 85.98% of them refer to actions performed by the nurse writing the note, only 2.74% of them refer to patients’ actions, and 10.37% of them refer to actions performed by other hospital personnel. The passive voice appears to serve the rhetorical function of deferring attention away from the agent, the nurse, and towards the patient or the materials being used to treat the patient, much as it is used in scientific writing. However, I also found that the passive voice is sometimes used inconsistently, and its use varies from nurse to nurse, even within the same unit. It is my hope that this pilot study, having revealed the inconsistency and complexity of passive voice use in nurses’ notes, will lead to more, comprehensive studies of writing in the nursing discourse community.

Additional Information

A Thesis Submitted to the University of North Carolina Wilmington in Partial Fulfillment Of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
Language: English
Date: 2009
Communication in nursing, Interpersonal communication, Written communication
Communication in nursing
Interpersonal communication
Written communication

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