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Documenting presence: A descriptive study of chaplain notes in the intensive care unit

  • Brittany M. Lee (a1), Farr A. Curlin (a2) and Philip J. Choi (a3)

To clarify and record their role in the care of patients, hospital chaplains are increasingly called on to document their work in the medical record. Chaplains' documentation, however, varies widely, even within single institutions. Little has been known, however, about the forms that documentation takes in different settings or about how clinicians interpret chaplain documentation. This study aims to examine how chaplains record their encounters in an intensive care unit (ICU).


We performed a retrospective chart review of the chaplain notes filed on patients in the adult ICUs at a major academic medical center over a six-month period. We used an iterative process of qualitative textual analysis to code and analyze chaplains' free-text entries for emergent themes.


Four primary themes emerged from chaplain documentation. First, chaplains frequently used “code language,” such as “compassionate presence,” to recapitulate interventions already documented elsewhere in a checklist of ministry interventions. Second, chaplains typically described what they observed rather than interpreting its clinical significance. Third, chaplains indicated passive follow-up plans, waiting for patients or family members to request further interaction. Fourth, chaplains sometimes provided insights into particular relationship dynamics.

Significance of results:

As members of the patient care team, chaplains access the medical record to communicate clinically relevant information. The present study suggests that recent emphasis on evidence-based practice may be leading chaplains, at least in the medical center we studied, to use a reduced, mechanical language insufficient for illuminating patients' individual stories. We hope that our study will promote further consideration of how chaplain documentation can enhance patient care and convey the unique value that chaplains add to the clinical team.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Philip Choi, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Duke University Medical Center, Box 102355, Durham, North Carolina 27710. E-mail:
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