The Symbolic Functions of Nurses’ Cognitive Artifacts on a Medical Oncology Unit

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Acute care nurses continue to rely on personally created paper-based tools—their “paper brains”—to support work during a shift, although standardized handoff tools are recommended. This interpretive descriptive study examines the functions these paper brains serve beyond handoff in the medical oncology unit at a cancer specialty hospital. Thirteen medical oncology nurses were each shadowed for a single shift and interviewed afterward using a semistructured technique. Field notes, transcribed interviews, images of nurses’ paper brains, and analytic memos were inductively coded, and analysis revealed paper brains are symbols of patient and nurse identity. Caution is necessary when attempting to standardize nurses’ paper brains as nurses may be resistant to such changes due to their pride in constructing personal artifacts to support themselves and their patients.

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