In order to assess the context and use of patient-outcome measurement in nursing, British studies reported in Nursing Research Abstracts, published by the Department of Health in the 5-year period between January 1990 and December 1994 which measured patient outcome were retrieved, and analysed in relation to the nursing specialty, intervention and outcome variables, and method of measurement used. A total of 228 studies which measured patient outcome were identified, which included 516 occurrences of patient-outcome measurement. Fifty per cent of studies measured a single outcome variable. Physical health status and psychosocial functioning outcomes accounted for over half of the total number of variables used, with generic well-being measures least frequently used; 38% of the studies utilized existing outcome measurement tools, or researcher-constructed tools which had been tested for reliability and validity; 62% utilized tools constructed specifically for the study or physiological/biochemical measures. There was variation in the frequency of use of multiple outcome variables and existing measurement tools between different clinical specialties. The 228 studies included 119 different outcome-measurement tools/instruments, with only 20 measurement tools used more than once. The analysis identified a large range of patient-outcome variables and measurement tools included in nursing studies, but little coherence in definition and method of measurement between studies.