Career Development

Types of Nursing Theories: Concepts, Levels and Uses

June 17, 2021

Nursing theories can provide benefits to a variety of types of nurses. Nursing students, clinical researchers and registered nurses often engage with nursing theories, so it's helpful to learn about them if you're interested in a nursing career. Understanding nursing theories can also provide you with valuable information about best practices in nursing. In this article, we share the different types of nursing theories, explain each theory and its fundamental concepts, examine the three levels of nursing theories and discuss who may use them.

What are the types of nursing theories?

Nursing theories define nursing as something specialized compared to other medical disciplines, like surgical and dentistry professions. They provide frameworks for nursing best practices at all levels of comprehension. Here are some types of nursing theories:

  • Environmental theory
  • Theory of interpersonal relations
  • Nursing need theory
  • Care, cure, core theory
  • Nursing process theory
  • Theory of human caring
  • Self-care theory
  • Transcultural nursing theory
  • 21 nursing problems theory

Main concepts for each type of nursing theory

Each nursing theory includes distinct concepts and may focus on different areas of care. Here are the main concepts and purposes of each theory:

Environmental theory

Florence Nightingale developed this theory. It focuses on the importance of positive patient environments for recovery, curing illnesses or meeting health goals. The environmental theory also details concepts like how to manage ventilation, light, noise, cleanliness of the facility, bedding practices, personal hygiene, food safety and patient support strategies. The primary message of this theory is that nurses can rearrange patient spaces to assist them with their recovery progress.

Theory of interpersonal relations

This theory, developed by Hildegard Peplau, focuses on the benefits of strong nurse and patient relationships. It suggests that interpersonal relations comprise four elements, including:

  • Person
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Nursing

The primary takeaway of this theory is that nurses' interactions and communication habits can influence a patient's well-being and overall healthcare experience.

Related: 20 Communication Techniques in Nursing To Improve Care

Nursing need theory

The nursing need theory comes from Virginia Henderson. It focuses on rebuilding patient independence to help boost the rate of their recovery. It also focuses on how nurses can address patient needs directly and help them learn how to meet their needs independently. The principal concepts of this theory are that a nurse's duty is to care for patients throughout all stages of their healing process and that a nurse's goal can be to help guide patients back to independent living.

Related: 10 Ways To Advocate for Patients

Care, cure, core theory

Lydia Hall developed the care, cure, core theory. This theory concentrates on elements of nursing that it proposes are essential. These elements are care, cure and core. Care refers to the typical role of nurses providing care to patients. Cure refers to the attention and treatments patients receive from medical professionals. Core refers to the care a patient receives from nurses or cures they may experience due to effective treatment plans. The main concept of this theory is that patients are the focus of nursing care and each patient might have different needs.

Related: How To Become a Nurse Care Coordinator

Nursing process theory

The nursing process theory, introduced by Ida Jean Orlando, explores the importance of relationships between nurses and patients. The theory explains that while the actions of nurses can affect patients, patients' actions can also influence nurses. It also outlines five stages of patient care, including:

  • Assessment of the patient
  • Diagnosis and treatment plan
  • Implementation of the treatment plan
  • Evaluation of the patient's progress

The primary concept of this theory is to produce positive outcomes for patients through professionalism.

Theory of human caring

This theory from Jean Watson focuses on how nurses and the treatment plans they implement can promote health and prevent sicknesses. It also emphasizes that all patients are unique, so nurses can offer treatment based on the progress that's possible for a particular patient, rather than providing treatment based on a general assessment. The primary concept of this theory is that customized care can help patients grow and that caring environments can be inclusive.

Self-care theory

Dorothea Orem developed the self-care theory in nursing, which addresses an individual's ability to care for themselves. This might include maintaining a healthy lifestyle or managing overall well-being. Using this theory to assess patients might help you determine if they have fully recovered or if they may still need care. The central concept of this theory is that patients who need help caring for themselves often require continued nursing care, while patients who can care for themselves may no longer need a nurse's assistance.

Transcultural nursing theory

Transcultural nursing theory, originally introduced by Madeleine Leininger, focuses on the importance of nurses understanding the diverse cultural backgrounds of their patients to ensure they are providing care that is in line with each patient's personal and cultural values. Understanding transcultural nursing theory can allow nurses to provide personalized care for the patients they serve. The key concept of this theory is that nurses may learn about each patient's beliefs to customize their recovery plan and ensure it aligns with their values.

Related: Patient-Centered Care: Elements and Examples

21 nursing problems theory

Faye Abdellah created the 21 nursing problems theory, which focuses on human needs. Typically, nursing students review and reference this theory when preparing to begin practicing because it outlines best practices for providing comprehensive care to patients. Comprehensive care may involve nurses, patients, treatment plans and societal factors. The fundamental concept of this theory is that nursing is an art form of care that requires nurses to have positive attitudes, medical knowledge and specialized skill sets.

Related: Skills in Nursing: Definition and Examples

Nursing theory levels

The level of a nursing theory indicates whether a concept is complex or simple. Here are the three main nursing theory levels:

Grand nursing

Grand nursing theories are usually more abstract or complex and may require research to achieve an in-depth understanding of the theory's concepts. Theories at this level may focus on systems rather than protocols for specific interventions. An example of a grand nursing theory may be the transcultural nursing theory.

Middle-range nursing

Middle-range nursing theories are typically less abstract than grand nursing theories because they focus on more definitive subjects. Sometimes people who develop middle-range nursing theories expand on grand nursing theories by contributing additional research or recording their nursing experiences. An example of a middle-range theory is the self-care theory.

Practice-level nursing

Practice-level nursing theories are more specific than grand or middle-range theories. They focus on addressing specific situations. Theories at this level can provide nurses with strategies for performing specific interventions or with guidelines for nursing best practices. Nurses may also use practice-level nursing theories to help them with daily nursing tasks. An example of a practice-level nursing theory is the theory of human caring.

Who uses nursing theories?

A variety of nursing professionals use nursing theories, including nursing students, nursing professors, clinical researchers and practicing nurses. Here is an in-depth examination of the types of professionals who use nursing theories:

Academic professionals and nursing students

Both professors and students may use nursing theories in academic settings. Professors might use them when teaching nursing students about best practices in the field. They might also reference nursing theories when teaching students how to care for different types of patients. Nursing theories may help students with a reference as they prepare for their future careers by working with real or model patients in clinical settings. Professors and students can also use nursing theories to conduct their own research in nursing.

Related: How To Become a Nursing Educator


Researchers may use existing nursing theories as resources, which can help them develop informed foundations for their research projects. Referencing current theories in their publications can help researchers demonstrate their understanding of a particular nursing concept or specialty. Researchers can use nursing theories for formal or informal research purposes, like research papers or case studies.

Related: How To Become a Research Nurse: A Step-by-Step Guide

Practicing nurses

Professional, practicing nurses may use nursing theories as guides when working directly with patients. For example, if a nurse encounters a patient with a health condition they have little experience of treating, they can apply practice-level nursing theories to help their patient recover effectively. Nurses may use nursing theories occasionally or every day, depending on their needs or personal preferences.


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