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Discourse analysis of an ‘observation levels’ nursing policy


JanHorsfall Senior Lecturer, Division of Nursing Faculty of Health, UWS Macarthur, PO Box 555, Campbelltown, NSW 2560 Australia. E-mail:


Discourse analysis of an ‘observation levels’ nursing policy

The practice of special observation (or constant observation) is widely used in inpatient psychiatric facilities for the care of people who are suicidal. In this study, the policy of special observation was examined using a discourse analysis method to discern prevailing ideas and practices highlighted within the policy. After reading, studying and analysing the special observation nursing policy, the authors briefly describe the document and outline the terms and phrases prevalent within the document. These recurrent ideas are then organized into five categories: professional responsibilities, suicidality, the patient’s immediate context, the patient’s observable behaviour and the nursing checklist. In discussion of the policy document, the invisibility of the authors, target audience and patients is noted. The authors attempt to elicit evidence for the therapeutic nurse–patient relationship in the document. In the analysis of patient, nurse and doctor roles and responsibilities, it is evident that the policy document reinforces the traditional medical hierarchy of power relations. Some assumptions that underpin the document are postulated. Questions regarding the nature of risk assessment and the evidence base for the medical prescription of special observation are raised. As well as ideas and themes evident in the document, the absence of some relevant issues is explored. While the need for succinctness and clarity in policy documents is acknowledged, the fact that patient rights, therapeutic processes and ethical dilemmas are absent is deemed significant.

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