Subjective vs Objective Data

Understand Subjective vs Objective Data in Nursing (and Why it Matters!)

Written by: Kristine Thorndyke

If you’re studying for the NCLEX, you’ll need to understand the difference between subjective vs objective data. Proficiency in distinguishing between these types of data is essential for becoming a competent and safe nurse. We break out the differences between objective and subjective data as well as provide real-life nursing scenarios to help distinguish this data.

What is Objective Data?

Objective data is the physical data we can observe using our senses. Objective findings come in either a measurement or a direct observation. Objective data cannot be argued, as it is measured and observed through vitals, tests, and physical exams.

objective data
Vitals are objective data

Objective data is often easier for many to discern, as there is no gray area, which makes it a simpler concept for many nurses and students to grasp.

Examples of Objective Data Findings:

  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Body temperature
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Lab panels
  • Fluid samples (cultures)
  • Diagnostic tests
  • General Appearance
  • Levels of consciousness

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What is Subjective Data?

In medicine, a general rule of thumb is that a symptom is subjective, while a sign is objective. Subjective data is going to be information that you receive from the patient or from one of his or her knowledgeable companions. Subjective data is what you are able to pull from the patient such as how they are feeling, what their symptoms are, or what their current concerns are.  

subjective data nursing
A patient’s reported symptoms are subjective data

This subjective data sometimes takes a backseat to the objective data vitals and numbers, but listening to the patient and getting all the subjective data in their current condition can help you get a full read on the situation and the patientā€™s story.

One of the most important pieces of subjective data is pain. When a patient comes with symptoms of pain, you know that this pain needs to be addressed, even if there is no objective way to quantify the amount of pain.

Examples of Subjective Data Findings:

  • Pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Exhaustion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Itching
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Sadness

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Examples of Objective and Subjective Data Occurring Concurrently:

To help you understand the differences between subjective vs. objective data, it can help to see situations where they can occur at the same time. Each of these examples include subjective data of the patient telling the nurse about his or her symptoms while the nurse is observing the objective data signs that these symptoms are currently taking place. Letā€™s look at these examples to make this more clear:

Example 1:

A patient says he has a fever and has muscle aches and nausea. He has a flushed appearance and the nurse reads a 102 degree F temperature on the thermometer.

subjective vs objective data

Let’s break out the data from this first example into their objective and subjective findings:

Objective:

  • 102 Temperature
  • Flushed appearance

Subjective:

  • The patient feels muscle aches
  • Patient reports experiencing a fever

Example 2:

A patient is clutching her stomach and complaining of nausea, diarrhea, and headache symptoms. The nurse observes her vomiting into the toilet.

subjective vs objective data

Objective:

  • Nurse observes vomiting

Subjective:

  • Patient reports feeling nausea
  • Patient says she has diarrhea
  • Patient reports headache

Example 3:

A patient complains of shakiness, especially in his hands. When asked about his symptoms, he mentions that he has lost weight. He currently weighs 187 pounds. While he is on the scale, the nurse can see his hands shaking.

subjective and objective data

Objective Data:

  • Patient weighs 187 pounds
  • Nurse observes his hands shaking

Subjective Data:

  • Patient reports shakiness
  • Patient has reported weight loss over time

Each of these examples show the nurse observing objective data that is closely related to the symptoms, or subjective data, that the patient is saying he or she is experiencing.

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Example 4:

A client (‘client’ is used in NCLEX writing) expresses a loss of appetite due to a recentĀ medication. During the shift, the nurse does not observe the client eating any of the meals provided from the dietary department.

Objective Data:

  • There is no notice of food consumptionĀ during the nurse’s shift

Subjective Data:

  • Client reports loss of appetiteĀ 

Example 5:

A client reports chest pain and is seen guarding his chest. On the EKG, the nurse notices a heart arrhythmia.Ā 

Objective Data:

  • Guarding of chest
  • EKG reading

Subjective Data:

  • Client report of chest pain

Example 6:

A client complains of an “itchy” back. When the nurse inspects the client’s back, there is a noticeable rash present.

Objective Data:

  • Back rash

Subjective Data:

  • Client complaint of an “itchy” back

Why Subjective vs Objective Data is Important for Passing the NCLEX

When studying for the NCLEX, you will be tested to demonstrate your knowledge and skills of health screening. This can include performing a health history, health, and risk assessment. This includes both the symptoms a patient says they are currently experiencing as well as the empirical objective data that can be measured by the 5 senses. In summary, here are 7 reasons why you need to know about subjective and objective data for both the NCLEX and beyond:

  1. Subjective and objective data are the basis of accurate patient assessment.
  2. They guide the development of individualized care plans.
  3. Distinguishing between them helps in prioritizing nursing interventions.
  4. Effective communication with the healthcare team relies on clear reporting of these data.
  5. Proper documentation is essential for legal and quality assurance purposes.
  6. It enhances critical thinking and clinical judgment skills.
  7. Mistaking one for the other can compromise patient safety.

Hopefully youā€™ve learned a bit on how to differentiate subjective vs objective data and you understand the need for observing the patient as well as listening to his or her story and symptoms to paint the best picture of the patientā€™s current state. Donā€™t make the mistake of relying too much on numbers, as every patient deserves a nurse to listen to their story and take in the full picture.

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