Signs and Symptoms, or, Show vs Tell

I am a nursing student. When I’m not writing ridiculously convoluted stories about science and monsters, I’m glued to giant books that tell me how to take care of sick people.

In medicine, there is a thing called “signs and symptoms,” also known as “objective and subjective” information about the patient.

As we were going over the difference between signs and symptoms in class, I had a eureka moment.

Signs and symptoms are exactly the same as show versus tell!Let me ‘splain.

Signs are things that you as the nurse can observe. Someone is sweating. Someone is yelling. Someone smells like bananas. And so on. This is objective information that is not able to be opinioned upon; that is, if someone is sweating, you can’t argue that they aren’t sweating. Because they are. It’s right there. Here, touch it. Ewww.

Symptoms are things that the patient tells you. They are hot (not a fever, they just feel that the room is too warm). They are in pain. They ate too many bananas. And so on. This is subjective information that can’t be duplicated by the nurse; that is, s/he just has to take the patient’s word. Did the patient actually eat too many bananas? Maybe. But there’s no way to tell.

So how is that the same as show versus tell?

Showing is the same as signs. Objective information that isn’t dependent upon opinion. The patient’s face is greasy, and there are dark circles and lines under her eyes.

Telling is the same as symptoms. Subjective information that may or may not be true. The patient didn’t sleep well last night.

See? Totally the same thing!

And I’ve gotta say, from what I’ve been taught so far, signs are preferred over symptoms in nursing charting. You can’t let your own opinions color a medical care document. You can’t say “the patient is tired and grumpy.” You say “patient has dark circles under her eyes. Patient states she ‘wants to choke [nurse] unconscious’.”

The same is true for writing. Show, don’t tell! Okay, you can tell sometimes. But mostly show. Signs, not symptoms!


You’re welcome.

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