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Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2011;32(7):424-35. doi: 10.3109/01612840.2011.563339.

Ethnographic research into nursing in acute adult mental health units: a review.

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University of Western Sydney, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Family and Community Health Research Group (FaCH), Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.


Acute inpatient mental health units are busy and sometimes chaotic settings, with high bed occupancy rates. These settings include acutely unwell patients, busy staff, and a milieu characterised by unpredictable interactions and events. This paper is a report of a literature review conducted to identify, analyse, and synthesize ethnographic research in adult acute inpatient mental health units. Several electronic databases were searched using relevant keywords to identify studies published from 1990-present. Additional searches were conducted using reference lists. Ethnographic studies published in English were included if they investigated acute inpatient care in adult settings. Papers were excluded if the unit under study was not exclusively for patients in the acute phase of their mental illness, or where the original study was not fully ethnographic. Ten research studies meeting our criteria were found (21 papers). Findings were grouped into the following overarching categories: (1) Micro-skills; (2) Collectivity; (3) Pragmatism; and (4) Reframing of nursing activities. The results of this ethnographic review reveal the complexity, patient-orientation, and productivity of some nursing interventions that may not have been observed or understood without the use of this research method. Additional quality research should focus on redefining clinical priorities and philosophies to ensure everyday care is aligned constructively with the expectations of stakeholders and is consistent with policy and the realities of the organisational setting. We have more to learn from each other with regard to the effective nursing care of inpatients who are acutely disturbed.

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