There is a Lot More to Nurses Notes Than Meet the Eye

(Last Updated On: November 10, 2017)

Learn the basic rules and structure of a nurse’s note



urses notes are sometimes called narrative notes or progress notes but don’t get confused. The information you write in these pages are legal documents. There are times when you do need to document, and others you should not. What you write or fail to do, is equally important. But also important is to understand who you’re writing for, and why and when you need to write. Confused yet? Read on.

To create good nurses notes, think of it as – NURSES LEGAL DOCUMENTATION

Here’s some basic rules

Rule # 1    who are you writing for

When you write anything, you are doing so because you need to communicate something to someone. In the case of nurse’s notes, your target audience is a legal entity like: the state, your boss or a lawyer. When writing your documentation keep this idea in mind. Write, so that information cannot be misconstrued. Everything you write should not invite any further questioning. Never write open ended statements.

It it is all about documentation.If you did not document, it doesn’t exist. If you gave the right medication but documented the wrong one – you gave the wrong medication. You are documenting the work you did so you can prove you did the work. Likewise you are documenting events that happened so you can also prove they did happen. So nurses notes among many things are – proof of your work.

But you can’t simply write every single thing on a given shift. Prioritize what needs to be written and what doesn’t.

Rule # 2     Critically think if you need a note

It seems simple but lot’s of people miss this point. Before you rush and write a note, do a back track of the situation and evaluate why there is need for a note in the first place. Look at the whole picture:

  1. Level of importance
  2. What can be omitted / what cannot
  3. What is the most important information
  4. What is the focus of this note

Think before you write. Nursing documentation cannot be erased. If you make a mistake or forget something you can always write a late entry. But you can never delete a note from the records. The more complex a situation, the more you should think before you write. If in doubt ask another nurse or your DON before you start and close a note.

Sometimes you deliberately omit writing a note. You should critically think and prioritize what needs to be documented. Remember, you are the nurse in charge. Use your own judgment. You have to protect yourself, protect your employer and protect your patients.

Rule # 3 Keep time and date records

When incidents happen, you must display the sequence of events as it unfolded. This might be easily overlooked. Every significant part of your story should be time stamped. Failing to do so can create a contradictory story line. Time stamping is specially important when you are trying to document complex event. Emergencies, change of conditions involving 3rd parties, and happening at different times.

Rule #4 Not all notes are alike

Some notes can be written quickly, others you might have to spend over an hour. If you are documenting that a patient had a fever that was relieved with Tylenol is one thing. But if you are documenting an emergency or a behavior situation involving bodily harm it is quite another. Determine what is serious and with important notes always show it to your DON before closing and signing it.


Structure of nurses notes

  • Find out if documentation is needed
  • Situation
  • Assessment
  • What did you do about  it

There are several ways to write a note, but it makes it easy if you apply these four principles. This is basically your regular SBAR but configured differently.


  1. Situation
  2. Background
  3. Assessment
  4. Recommendation

Breaking down even further

  1. Decide if you need to document an event
  2. Describe what happened
  3. Provide your clinical/nursing assessment
  4. Explain what you did about the situation

1. Decide if you need to write a note

This is the most important step and requires critical thinking. There are times you absolutely need documentation, other times you are better off not writing anything at all. Redundant and useless information can be confusing and cause trouble. Only write what might need an explanation or a record.

Remember that 99% of the time, no one will ever read these nurses notes; only when something goes wrong notes will be reviewed. Like in the event of a law suit, death or complaint.

If something goes wrong, your notes will be examined under a microscope and every word you wrote or fail to do so, could put you and your employer in jeopardy.

Don’t write a note about a situation if you can’t follow up with. Remember that every important situation you documenting must have a follow up. If you can’t follow up, consider not writing it at all. What you don’t write most likely will never have existed. You should evaluate if something is note worthy or not.

This should be part of your time management and prioritization skills. The bottom line is: Don’t start something if you cannot follow up or carry on to the end.

Make a list of significant events, better yet ask your DON what are the usual events the unit or facility are looking for and what kind of documentation is needed. They might vary from place to place. In some institutions there is more scrutiny placed on certain events then others. So you first check with the culture of your workplace. Always check everything with your DON You’ll never get in trouble by asking, but you will if you don’t.

There are several situations that need documentation. They could range from a conversation with a patient to a change of condition or a incident completely unrelated to any patient, for example: someone walks in the nurse station and threatened a staff member. Use your critical thinking. My advice is to only document important events that are unstable and have a potential to grow into a bigger problem.

Your documentation should have the purpose of protecting you, the organization you work for and the patient. The core value of your nurses notes should be the provision of accurate, non judgmental, and useful information for anyone who needs to learn about a significant event in the past.

Your documentation is all you have. You want to document situations you are responsible for. Every note you start should be viewed as a open case, you can always add more notes to it later.

Even though you don’t have to write about every single thing. You should keep a constant and regular writing that will reflect your work – like a diary or journal of your work. Do that for each patient. You don’t have to write about every single thing but you should have samples of everything that is relevant. The more your write the more accurate your work will be.

2. Describe what happened

Once you decide what to write you want to start by simply stating what you’ve found. This is the first part of your documentation. It does not have to be pretty or long. Words should be correctly spelled but it does not have to be pretty writing. It just has to make sense.

What did you see? Describe the situation in a few words. Leave nothing important or significant out. Don’t give any personal opinions, at this point you are a impartial observer. Describe exactly what you found and pay attention to the big picture.

Here again you have to use critical thinking. Not only you’ll not register your personal opinion but you will not register other people’s opinions. If a patient was upset and came up with a story that was not true such as “my mother was seating in a pool of blood” don’t quote her story as part of what you found. You only need to say “the patient was upset”. by registering what the patient said you are officially validating a false scenario. Remember, If you didn’t document, it doesn’t exist, be smart how you communicate what you found to others.

You should write your statement in such way that it doesn’t lead to false or misconstruing ideas. You never know the intent of those who will read your notes. If you have a serious incident ask another nurse to go over the note with you. Two heads thinking are always better than one, remember team work. Nurses notes are particularly powerful when all nurses work together and protect each other.

Always include all the crucial information concerning the event you are describing. For example: you write “the patient was complaining” it must be followed by – what was the patient complaining about.

Anyone reading a note should have access to all information necessary to reconstruct the situation you are recounting. In a court of law you’ll never remember what happened that night 2 years ago so add it while its fresh.

Your description of the situation is just a description of what happened as raw as possible, no judgment, no clinical assessment, and by all means add date and time.

3. Your clinical assessment

Because you are a nurse and a health care professional you’ll now assess the situation as such. This is when you can give your opinion based on scientific data you’ve collected. Your first assessment was what happened, the raw data containing the basic elements you found. Your clinical assessment contain information you’ll use to make your recommendations as a nurse and also to justify your actions or non action.

What did you find as a clinician? How the situation affects the health care environment. How was the patient affected. Now is the time to register what you found and list all your findings. Write an assessment pertinent to the situation at hand. List all clinical findings that are relevant to the patient and to others that will take care of this patient in the future.

When assessing think of

  • Vital signs
  • Diagnosis
  • Medications
  • Psycho-social
  • Progress notes
  • Health history
  • Pain
  • Distress
  • SOB

4. What did you do about it

This is when you document what you did to remedy, improve, and recommend. Your actions or recommendations will be based on your clinical assessment as a RN. So when you write your assessments have in mind that it must support your actions (i.e. what did you do about it and why).

If you’re documenting something beyond your scope make sure you document that you let others know about and you have the confirmation that you did contact them. If is something that need to be followed up by the next shift, make sure you document that you informed the next shift. i.e. (next shift have been notified)

“What did you do about it” is a point everyone will be looking for when documentation is backtracked. No one wants the do see the do nothing approach. Always do something!

Good documentation is challenging. It is not about producing beautiful writing but creating documentation that speak for itself. Good documentation should be accurate and leave no desire for further questions. Remember – If you did something but didn’t document you simply didn’t do it.

After you have written a note – read it, then read it again. Read it to your nurse buddy. Edit your nursing note – like you’re editing a paper for school

Types of Nursing notes

There are many types of nursing notes. They all have similarities because they are the documentation of something. But they can have different tones, and it will pay off to have that in mind. They have different emphasis and choices of word and sizes.

Think of them in categories. It can make your work faster and more accurate because you already know which direction you need to go. I created some usual scenarios list that are common in any nursing floor. You can use them as a cheat sheet structure for your collection of notes.

  1. Ongoing progress notes
  2. Health notes
  3. Incident notes
  4. Behavior notes
  5. Communication notes
  6. Death notes


Ongoing documentation notes

These notes are just routine documentation. It is a summary of what you do for your patients on regular basis. Even though there might not be any significant events to note; you should document what you did as a routine. It is just a progress note so anyone can know what is going on with a given patient. Remember if you didn’t document it didn’t happen. Chart frequently and every day. In a way is like a diary of your work. You should at least make one of these type notes a day. Nurses don’t always have time to do these because there might be some other more important notes to write. As a whole they are important because it is a validation of your work, or rather a history of how you work.

Ongoing documentation note sample

Pt is resting in his room. AO X4 no s/s of pain, distress or shortness of breath. Pt ate < 75% of his daily intake and show signs of improvement as noted for being more active. Pt was encouraged to participate in PT today. Pt was up in the wheelchair x2. Dressing change today per order. All medications well tolerated, call light within reach. VS 146/74 98.2 76 18 97% RA


Health notes

This is a type note you make when there is some change. Something important did happen or changed with your patient. A change of condition or something you did, like a change of catheter, or an IV injection. You basically want to document an important action you carried out. You used sterile procedures. You want to make sure you document what you did and what you didn’t do why you didn’t do it. Health notes can also include, admission notes, discharge notes, fall notes.


Incident notes

This notes are the ones you must pay lots of attention to. Incidents can get complicated and filled with critical details. Is important that you pay extra attention to time stamping and the order of events clearly.

My tip here is that as you notice there is an incident with a patient; start writing pocket notes as the events as the unfold. Incident notes can be a patient rapidly deteriorating condition; a fire in the room; a fight between staff. An incident is usually something that is unusual and have implications and consequences in the future, either to the RN, the facility or hospital or the patient. These are the type of notes that are most likely to be reviewed in a court of law. So, make sure you write them with the idea that a sharp lawyer will be reading and looking for holes.


Behavior notes

Behavior notes are much like incident notes but with a difference. While incident notes are usually accidents or unpredictable events. Behavior notes are 100% psycho-social. They have to do with people usually making threats to the security of others.

So, the emphasis is on protect yourself and your boss. Behavior is usually patients having bad behavior, aggressiveness events, attack events, fights and threats to self or others. Patients with behavior issues must be payed close attention because they are usually the ones who later will get you fired over some blatant lie. The minute I see there is a new patient with behavior issues I begin to write a book about it. I record every and anything suspicious they say and do. If he ever reports you to the state you’ll have a collection of notes that will completely disqualify him from building any case against you or your boss. Unfortunately, this is the only way you must defend yourself.


Communication notes

Communication note are simple notes you are just letting other members of staff know about some information. These are simple notes but if the matter is of importance they also can become very important. Simple things such as: a certain fax has been sent; a patient needs to be ready to be picked up tomorrow morning at 0900.

These notes are only notes. No need to get fancy here. You are just informing other staff of internal tasks. But having said that; you should always post lots of these notes as you co-workers will appreciate. Failing to post them can also get into a lot of trouble; it obviously depends on the matter at hand. For example, if you had something important to tell the next shift and you want to make sure it is followed up – write a communication note. By writing these notes, you’ll make sure you don’t get in trouble with your staff.

Death notes

Death notes are simple and direct. There is not much to a note if the patient was expected to perish. This is the case with patients that are hospice or comfort care.

In the case of an unexpected death you note will be extensive. Don’t omit any details and time stamps. Document everything you did, everything you didn’t and why you didn’t do it. In the case of unexpected death never write it alone. Always have your DON to sit down and write it with you. If you write it alone you’ll most likely forget crucial information.

Death note sample for hospice type death

The patient has expired today at 0300. MD notified, city coroner Lee notified ID # 374638. She passed peacefully with family at the bedside. No s/s of pain or distress noted, pt was kept comfortable and morphine was given as needed. Hospice contacted at 0305, hospice RN arrived at 0345. Funerary arrangements were done per family’s request. All belongings given back to family. Patient’s body was removed from facility at 0630 no incidents noted.


Style and terminology

Nurses notes should be similar to police reports and lawyer’s writings. They are technical writing and have a preference for some keywords. The writing is focused on the content, in other words – the important information must be there and it hardly matter the order, or punctuation. Spelling however should be impeccable. Correct syntax also is not that important, if you have the time to do a better job its OK but I’ll guarantee you wont.

Words and sentencing

There are some words and sentencing that are standards in nurses notes. It is a good idea to have a stash of these in your bin so you can quickly write your notes.

Things you can always say you did (if you didn’t do I don’t want to know)

  • call light is within reach
  • the patient was educated about the schedule
  • the patient verbalized understanding instructions
  • the patient was fed dinner on admission
  • the patient was satisfied and didn’t have further questions
  • bed was left at lower position / bed down
  • room clean and clean set of sheets in bed (on admission)

On assessments

  • pt is AOx3
  • no s/s of distress, pain or shortness of breath
  • vital signs 138/73, 67, 97.1, 18, 97%RA (please don’t use WNL, it is lame)
  • the patient is able to make his needs known (it means: the patient knows what he is doing)
  • the patient is not able to make decisions  

On abnormal assessments

Remember that if something is not right you must do something. So be careful what you document, because for every item you write, there must be a corresponding action.

    • patient was found on the floor
    • the patient had an witnessed fall
    • the patient is non compliant (it means that he does not follow instructions)
    • the patient is at risk for fall
    • the patient has eloped the facility (it means the patient leaves without having permission)

Nurses notes examples

You can Google “nurses notes examples” and will see many different samples, or you can look at my samples above. But if you just trying to copy somebody else work without knowing what you are doing – you are basically wasting your time. Invest time understanding why you are supposed to write a note. Think of what kind of information others will need to know about what happened. If you know that by heart, you’ll never need to look at another nurse’s work. Know the above and you can’t go wrong. Remember, is not about how long or how pretty you write; its about the content of your note relative to the situation.

So, what do you think about nurses notes? What are your experiences so far, and do you have anything to add to this page? Please let me know if I missed anything! And feel free to add your suggestion on how this page could be improved. Thank you and happy nursing notes!

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In Category: 1.NURSING

Marcos Taquechel

Marcos is an RN. Thanks for stopping by and reading my posts. I hope you are able to get something useful out of this blog. Take good care of yourself and don't worry about anything until you have something to worry about.

Show 3 Comments
  • Dickson Aruasa October 9, 2017, 04:28

    Thanks for the detailed information on nursing documentation. Very useful for my students.

    • Dickson Aruasa October 9, 2017, 04:30

      Thank you

    • Marcos Taquechel October 9, 2017, 08:33

      I’m glad your students can benefit from this post. This is a important area in nursing somewhat misunderstood by many.

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