Nursing Theory and Practice: Examining the Connection

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A nurse consults patient records on a desktop computer.Florence Nightingale developed the first nursing theory in the 1800s to guide nursing education and formalize nursing as a profession. Nursing theory and practice now go hand in hand, with theory informing academic research, scientific reasoning, and clinical developments to improve the quality of care in nursing.

In 1955, Virginia Henderson developed the nursing need theory, which outlines the nurse’s role in helping patients meet 14 fundamental needs. In 1971, Imogene King created the theory of goal attainment, stating that the purpose of the nurse-patient relationship is to meet goals for good health. Today, nursing professionals must understand the intricate connection between nursing theory and practice if they want to lead new practices and have a positive impact on the future of nursing.

A graduate program such as Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing can provide the knowledge and skills nursing professionals need to help develop and implement advanced health care strategies.

What Is Nursing Theory? defines nursing theory as “an organized framework of concepts and purposes designed to guide the practice of nursing.” Health care practitioners and theorists use it to concretely categorize the role of nurses, the purpose of the nursing profession, and the proposed outcomes of nursing as a discipline.

Four concepts form the foundation of nursing theory:

  1. Person, or the individual who receives nursing care.
  2. Environment, or the surroundings and conditions that influence nurses, patients, and care delivery.
  3. Health, or the state of well-being for patients, nurses, and care settings.
  4. Nursing, or the actions nurses take to provide care.

These four concepts inform nursing theories, which often fall into three main categories:

  1. Grand theories, which propose broad, abstract ideas and concepts about nursing.
  2. Middle-range theories, which are also abstract but address smaller-scale phenomena and situations in nursing.
  3. Nursing practice theories, which explore specific goals, practices, and outcomes in nursing.

Nursing theories can also fall into the following categories based on their philosophical foundations:

  • Needs theories, which aim to address a patient’s mental and physical needs.
  • Interaction theories, which address the relationships between nurses and patients.
  • Outcome theories, which focus on the nurse’s role as the driving force of change for the patient.
  • Humanistic theories, which emphasize individual patients’ needs and the patient’s role in promoting their own health and well-being.

Nurses, medical scholars, and other health care professionals are often the ones who develop nursing theories. Theories emerge from making assumptions and then conducting research — such as through academic studies or hands-on clinical experience — to propose models, concepts, and beliefs based on those assumptions. Theorists might conduct their own studies or use past nursing studies and propositions to further theory development and evolve nursing practices.

The Importance of Converting Theory into Practice

Professionals develop nursing theories to inform nursing practice, advance care strategies, and improve patient outcomes for a better quality of life. Nurses can apply them to all six steps of the nursing process: assessment, diagnosis, outcome, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Nursing theories can also help nurses better understand the reasoning behind using care procedures, which outcomes those procedures might yield, and how to optimize practices for the future of care.

Health care professionals can use different methodologies to turn theory into applicable practice. They may use descriptive theories, for example, to further nursing research. These theories describe the properties of a nursing phenomenon or situation. Predictive theories, by contrast, forecast the relationships between nursing properties of phenomena. Meanwhile, prescriptive theories propose specific nursing practices and outcomes for addressing a phenomenon.

Advanced Practice Nurses and Nursing Theory

Advanced practice nurses must understand how to apply nursing theories to their roles in the medical field. These applications of nursing theory and practice can allow health care professionals to more effectively evaluate and assess their care initiatives, as well as predict outcomes in lifesaving situations. Nursing theory comprehension can also help nursing professionals use their practice to develop and inform new theories that may influence the future of their discipline.

Cultural competence, for example, is a developing concept in nursing theory and practice. Cultural competence involves being sensitive, respectful, and informed regarding each patient’s cultural background and needs. Culture informs patients’ language, values, religion, and beliefs, potentially influencing their health history, care preferences, and requirements. Through nursing theory, medical professionals are building a deeper understanding of how to incorporate cultural competence into their work and improve health care outcomes for all patients.

Apply Nursing Theory and Practice in Your Career

Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program is designed to prepare nursing professionals to advance their careers. The comprehensive curriculum combines advanced nursing theory with evidence-based practice and real-world case studies to build the knowledge and skills students need to become leaders in this growing field.

Learn more about how Ohio University’s online MSN can help you pursue your professional goals in health care.

Recommended Readings

How Nurses Use Simulation as Teaching Tools
The Importance of Nursing Theory in Nursing Education
Working as a Family Nurse Practitioner in Underserved Communities


National Association of School Nurses, Cultural Competency
National Institutes of Health, Cultural Respect
Nurseslabs, “Nursing Theories and Theorists”, Nightingale’s Environment Theory, Nursing Theory Definition
Ohio University, Online Master of Science in Nursing
ResearchGate, “Nursing Theories”