As Nurse Week Comes to a Close: Nursing Theory

This last week here in the USA we celebrated Nurses’ Week and then Nurses’ Day on May 12. May 12 is the birth date of two of the founders of contemporary nursing, Florence Nightingale and Martha Rogers. Nightingale ushered in an era of modern nursing beginning in the 1850’s, where women could work in a hospital setting after undergoing professional training. Just prior to Nightingale’s efforts, nursing was generally not thought of as a respected profession. Over 100 years later, Rogers brought to us a theory of Unitary Human Beings, which helps us to better understand our patients’ needs, and guides our own journey toward emancipation as a profession.

Florence Nightingale

Martha Rogers

These two women, each with their own controversial and spiritual views of nursing, have greatly impacted nurses and the profession. I  strongly believe that each and every nurse can also create change in the workplace. We need to find ways to first care for ourselves, and then communicate better with each other, our patients, our administrators, our legislators, and the general public. We need to bridge the gap between what many of us believe is our calling as nurses- to care deeply for our patients from a heart space- and the demands we have accepted as a profession to perform technological medical interventions. We are charged with finding our full, clear, professional voice and revolutionizing how nursing and healthcare are delivered. One area that needs more focus in our educational and professional settings is supporting nurses in utilizing theory to guide practice.

One of our living legends, Dr. Jean Watson, has worked to create a theory of human caring nursing and science of caring that each support our efforts toward professional autonomy. Watson understands the desire of most nurses to enact a caring presence for their patients, and the Watson Caring Science Institute works closely with facilities on the Magnet Status Journey. In learning to utilize human caring her theory, the nurses working in these facilities begin to feel empowered and engaged in their work on a whole new level. They return to the core of nursing as caring and they begin to create measurable changes in their practice.

Dr. Jean Watson

Having taught nursing theory with both undergraduate and graduate nursing students for some years now, I do often see resistance to use of nursing theory. Nurses in general are unaware of the importance of applying theory to practice and using theory to support the generation of a new body of evidence that supports the development of a caring nursing science. Because we fail to emphasize the use of theory at the pre-licensure level of education, most nurses are unaware of how nursing theory can guide their practice, support their decision making, and enrich both their personal and professional work. My job has been to create a sense of excitement about theory and support students in learning how theory guides practice. I support their analysis of theory and their ability to apply theory in practice. I have found that the majority of students often overcome their resistance to nursing theory when they begin to have hands-on experiences of how nursing theory can enrich their practice.

I would like to ask the nurses reading this to share their thoughts on nursing theory: how and where did you learn about nursing theory? How have you used nursing theory in your setting to create change?

3 thoughts on “As Nurse Week Comes to a Close: Nursing Theory

  1. Carey,
    I may be a freak, but I enjoy theory – including nursing theory! I had the distinct pleasure of teaching nursing theory to Masters level nursing students (online) over the past couple years. Like you, I found that students were very resistant to learning about nursing theory – dread would be a good word to describe the way they felt about my class. However, each group seemed to come around, and through wonderful discussions, discovered the foundation that theory provides. My favorite thing was when students would say they had been discussing theory with their colleagues at work. Lightbulbs were constantly going on and it was such a good thing.

    My experience with nursing education, let alone nursing theory, was “non-traditional” (although I keep wondering if there is any traditional route these days). I got my Bachelors of Arts in Biology and then went on to get my Master of Nursing Science. I became an RN after 11 months of intensive classroom and clinical education – and no theory. In the second and third years (the Masters part), the only theory we got was specific to nurses at Yale. Fortunately, one of them was Virginia Henderson, whose work I still refer to often. In my doctoral program I had a lot more exposure to nursing theory, and this time it was centered around more contemporary theorists and specifically caring theory.

    It wasn’t until I taught Nursing Theory that I learned in depth about Johnson, Orem, Peplau, Rogers, Roy, Watson, and so on. I struggle with whether it’s more important for nurses to know a little about all or many of the nursing theorists, or a lot about one or two. I’m intrigued by Parse Scholars, Rogerian Nurses, etc. I think all nurses would benefit from studying nursing theory (at least an overview) at the earliest level possible. I agree completely that the approach to teaching/learning nursing theory needs to be hands-on and discussion based. Nursing students need to be able to see these theories in action to really understand and appreciate (even disagree with!) them.

    I hope I will have more opportunities to teach nursing theory courses in the future!


  2. Jane, as educators we certainly do learn a lot about the topics we continue to teach!

    I think it’s good for students to have an overview of most of the major nursing theorists’ work, and then perhaps study one more indepth. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time learning about Watson’s theory as I wrote my dissertation, and I would say her theory guides my practice as an educator, but I have also drawn on the work of Rogers and M. Newman. It’s a treat to know we can be flexible in how we make our nursing decisions.


  3. In my opinion, the importance of holistic theory guided practice is that it gives us a voice, a language to describe what we do, how we do it, and why nursing is of value to humanity and our ecologies (internal and external). To contest hegemony (indoctrinated sociocultural beliefs that we often unknowing subscribe to) and critically evaluate the long entreched ideologies of nursing as a service profession; does require a look back to Nightingale and a look forward to what nursing can be.
    The Nurse Manifest project is a great venue for this type of evaluation. Many thanks to Peggy for her work, and for introducing me to Carey; and to Carey for her work and articulation of what nursing is and can be. We have such wonderful mentors in our living legends and theorists, who are accessible and invitingly open to dialogue about their work and our profession. Peggy Chinn, for emancipatory praxis, Jean Watson for human caring and Barbie Dossey for integral nursing are my personal favorites and whose work inform my dissertation.

    I had the honor and pleasure of spending the day with holistic nursing colleagues and mentors in a workshop by Barbie Dossey, Deva-Marie Beck and Jen Reich which addressed finding voice and articulating the value of nursing through local to global advocacy. The message I came away with is: the time is NOW, talk about what you do as a nurse, find your VOICE, and your POWER. Get out there and talk to those who have access to decision making in your workplace, community and government. Get political! It is no longer enough to “be the change you want to see” in the world of nursing, you-we have to create it! Thanks for sharing this blog with me Carey!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s