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Nursing Theories

What Is Nursing Theories?

Nursing theories are organized, knowledge-based concepts that essentially define the scope of nursing practice. This scope would include what constitutes nursing, what nurses are typically tasked with, and the reasons why these tasks are in place.

These theories are crucial to the concept of nursing. They provide a foundational knowledge of care concepts that enable those in the profession to explain what they do for patients and the reasons for their actions. This is particularly important because it helps nurse’s articulate evidence that justifies the methodologies behind their practice.

The roots of nurse theory date to the late 19th century when it was first used as a key concept to advance nurse education. Today, the emphasis on evidence-based practice indicates that this educational component is still strongly present.

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Nursing theories are generally categorized into three different levels:

  • Grand Nursing Theories — these types of theories are based on broad, abstract, and complex concepts. They provide the general framework for nursing ideas pertaining to components such as people and health. These theories typically stem from a nurse theorist’s own experience.
  • Middle-Range Nursing Theories — these theories drill down into specific areas of nursing rather than deal with sweeping concepts. They can emerge from nursing practice, research, or from the theories of similar disciplines.
  • Practice-Level Nursing Theories — these theories narrow their focus even further, specifically focusing on concepts concerning a defined patient population at a specified time. These theories tend to directly affect patients more than the other two types of theories.

Why Nurse Theories Are Important for DNPs

In a nutshell, nurse theories help define what nurses do and why they do it. The framework provided by various nursing theories helps shape the parameters of patient care delivery. Without these theories in place, the concept of nursing would not have a linear focus; one that organically points back to patients and treating their health-related needs. Doctors of Nursing Practice (DNPs) can use these theories to help shape care delivery strategies for a health care facility in ways that align with a range of expected outcomes.

While grand theories can help establish a larger framework, middle-range and practice-level theories allow for the governance of specific types of nurses or certain health care scenarios. An example in action is the Neuman Systems model, named after famous nursing theorist Betty Neuman. This theory is built on the concept of treating the patient holistically, based on the notion that a patient’s many needs can disrupt their entire nature. It’s a theory that psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) utilize to treat a wide range of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia.

Another example is the Child Health Assessment Interaction Theory created by Kathryn E. Barnard, the pioneering infant mental health researcher. This theory puts forth the importance of the caregiver, the environment, and the child as key influencers of the parent-infant relationship, and acknowledges that adaptive behavior can further influence this dynamic. Pediatric nurse practitioners (PNPs) and family nurse practitioners (FNPs) utilize this theory to develop treatment strategies, such as using rocking chairs in hospital nurseries that help foster a comforting environment that encourages parent-infant bonding.

Specializing in Nursing with a BSN to DNP Degree

Nurse theories are an inextricable part of a nurse’s professional life, regardless of the patient care specialization. These theories are in place to establish the guidelines of both broad and specific nursing practices. Those aspiring to utilize the theories associated with advanced practice nursing must possess a skill set advanced enough to effectively turn these theories into practice.

The online BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Regis College is designed to help students gain leadership, analytical, and communication expertise through a robust curriculum that dives deeply into nursing theory and nursing’s essential concepts. Additionally, the program offers five specializations that can help advanced practice nurses focus their craft to theories associated with specific aspects of nursing. The five specializations are as follows:

  • Pediatrics (PNP) — This specialization focuses on attending to the health needs of children, from infants to teenagers.
  • Family (FNP) — In this specialization, students develop the acumen to treat patients of all ages.
  • Psychiatric Mental Health (PMHNP) — This specialization provides care to mental health patients via techniques related to psychotherapy.
  • Women’s Health (WHNP) —Those in this specialization are tasked with providing care to women, including care concerning women-specific health care issues.
  • Adult Gerontology (AGNP) — The focus here is on care related to aging, chronic illness, and end-of-life scenarios.

Putting Theory Into Practice

The theories that shape nursing concepts are centrally important to health care delivery. These nursing theories, however, can only help provide high-quality health care if nursing professionals are skilled and knowledgeable enough to work effectively within their parameters.

Learn more about how the online BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Regis College can help students bring nursing theories into practice — and help improve health outcomes for patients, their families, and communities.

The Importance of Nursing Theory for Nurse Education

Prior to the development of nursing theories, nursing was seen as a task-oriented occupation, and nurses were trained by doctors. Today, nursing theory serves as the foundation of nursing. It is shaping the field in important ways, according to the website Nurselabs, because it:

Helps nurses understand their purpose and role in the health care setting

Guides knowledge development

Directs education, research, and practice

Recognizes what should set the foundation of practice by explicitly describing nursing

Serves as a rationale or scientific reason for nursing interventions and gives nurses the knowledge base to act and respond appropriately in nursing care situations

Provides the foundations of nursing practice

Indicates in which direction nursing should develop in the future

Gives nurses a sense of identity

Helps patients, managers, and other health care professionals acknowledge and understand the unique contribution nurses make to health care service

Prepares nurses to reflect on nursing assumptions and examine the values in nursing, thus further defining nursing and increasing knowledge base

Allows the nursing profession to maintain and preserve its professional limits and boundaries

A Look at Grand Nursing Theories

A grand theory is just what the name implies. Compared to middle-range and practical theories, grand theories offer a sweeping overview of the nursing profession.

As the website CareerTrend notes, grand theories “are general concepts that pertain to the overall nature and goals of professional nursing. A grand theory, and there are many, is a synthesis of scholarly research, professional experience, and insights from theoretical pioneers (such as Florence Nightingale).”

One well-known grand nursing theory was formulated by Dorothea Orem in the 1950s, which centers around the individual’s ability to practice self-care. Orem’s theory is divided into self-care, self-care deficit, and nursing systems.

Another grand theory, the Roy Adaptation Model, was put forth by Callista Roy in 1976, and states that the purpose of nursing is essentially to increase life expectancy. In an online article for NurseLabs, author Angelo Gonzalez writes that in Roy’s theory, “nurses are facilitators of adaptation. They assess the patient’s behaviors for adaptation, promote positive adaptation by enhancing environment interactions and helping patients react positively to stimuli. Nurses eliminate ineffective coping mechanisms and eventually lead to better outcomes. Adaptation is the ‘process and outcome whereby thinking and feeling persons as individuals or in groups use conscious awareness and choice to create human and environmental integration.’”

Virginia Henderson, often called the “first lady of nursing,” developed a grand theory of nursing in the early 20th century. It defined the role of nurses in this way, according to the website Nursing Theory: “The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will, or knowledge.”

NurseLabs details other significant theorists and their concepts, including:

Ida Jean Orlando, who “emphasized the reciprocal relationship between patient and nurse and viewed the professional function of nursing as finding out and meeting the patient’s immediate need for help”

Hildegard Peplau, whose Theory of Interpersonal Relations emphasized the nurse-client relationship as the foundation of nursing practice

Faye Abdellah, whose “Typology of 21 Nursing Problems” “shifted the focus of nursing from a disease-centered approach to a patient-centered approach”

Jean Watson, who developed the philosophy of caring, which “highlighted humanistic aspects of nursing as they intertwine with scientific knowledge and nursing practice”

Nursing theory is an essential component of any level of nursing education. For nurses who wish to advance their education, an MSN curriculum offers the opportunity to examine more complex concepts of nursing theory alongside the practical experience students have already gained. Those who aspire to become nurse educators can build on nursing theories to train students and have an impact on the future of nursing.

Advance Your Practice with Higher Education

Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program offers targeted instruction in nursing education as well as other areas of the nursing field, while reinforcing why nursing theory is important to the field’s future development. Potential MSN degree benefits are numerous, including better pay and expanded career options.

Some courses included in the program are Advanced Diagnostic and Procedures for Clinical Decision Making, Advanced Pharmacology, and Assessment and Intervention for Families. Additionally, four different concentrations offer students the opportunity to choose where to refine their skills. Program concentrations include Adult-Gerontology Acute Care, Psychiatric Mental Health, Nurse Educator, and Family Nurse Practitioner.


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