Background: Free text is helpful for entering information into electronic health records, but reusing it is a challenge. The need for language technology for processing Finnish and Swedish healthcare text is therefore evident; however, Finnish and Swedish are linguistically very dissimilar. In this paper we present a comparison of characteristics in Finnish and Swedish free-text nursing narratives from intensive care. This creates a framework for characterising and comparing clinical text and lays the groundwork for developing clinical language technologies. Methods: Our material included daily nursing narratives from one intensive care unit in Finland and one in Sweden. Inclusion criteria for patients were an inpatient period of least five days and an age of at least 16 years. We performed a comparative analysis as part of a collaborative effort between Finnish- and Swedish-speaking healthcare and language technology professionals that included both qualitative and quantitative aspects. The qualitative analysis addressed the content and structure of three average-sized health records from each country. In the quantitative analysis 514 Finnish and 379 Swedish health records were studied using various language technology tools. Results: Although the two languages are not closely related, nursing narratives in Finland and Sweden had many properties in common. Both made use of specialised jargon and their content was very similar. However, many of these characteristics were challenging regarding development of language technology to support producing and using clinical documentation. Conclusions: The way Finnish and Swedish intensive care nursing was documented, was not country or language dependent, but shared a common context, principles and structural features and even similar vocabulary elements. Technology solutions are therefore likely to be applicable to a wider range of natural languages, but they need linguistic tailoring. Availability: The Finnish and Swedish data can be found at: http://www.dsv.su.se/hexanord/data/.