The Nursing Need Theory: Meaning and Origins

Table of Contents

The Nursing Need Theory model proposed by Virginia Henderson (1966) is one of the most crucial theories since it launched other nursing care approaches in the 20th century. The Nursing Need Theory focuses on the nursing staff’s attention to the physiological, psychological, and social needs met through nursing care. One of the prerequisites and assumptions for this model is the patient’s participation in the planning and implementation of care and the existence of 14 vital needs that are the same for all people, which are based on the theory of A. Maslow (Henderson’s nursing need theory,” n.d.). According to this model’s assumption, a healthy person, as a rule, does not has difficulty meeting these needs.

The needs in the Nursing Need Theory include normal breathing, drinking and eating enough food, isolation of waste products from the body; maintaining the necessary body position and movement; sleep and rest; and others. The four main concepts addressed by Henderson are the individual, the environment, health, and nursing (Henderson’s nursing need theory,” n.d.). All the concepts are dependent on one another and have a direct relationship with each other. For instance, when there is a lack of food or sleep in individuals, their health state might deteriorate substantially. The entire nursing process by Henderson is aimed at restoring the patient’s independence.

Origins of the Theory

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the concept of “professional nurse” did not exist. At best, some nurses were hired as servants in affluent homes to care for the dying (Alligood, 2014). Nurses at this time had to dress the wounded and take care of them in local hospitals. Before Henderson’s theory, it was common to focus nursing care for the patient, depending on the stated diagnosis. In 1937, Henderson became a member of the team of authors who created a new nursing training program with a patient-centered approach focused on patient care problems, not on their diagnosis.

Henderson used Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to define and characterize some of the needs of individuals in the Nursing Need Theory. Virginia was one of the most famous nurses of the twentieth century, and the urgency to specialize the nursing theory came to Virginia from the professional society. The International Council of Nurses in 1958 asked her to define the term “nursing” (Gonzalo, 2019). Thus, Henderson’s theoretical approach was based on her practice, education, and existing definitions of Florence Nightingale, who began conceptualizing the nursing definition.


Henderson’s nursing needs theory is useful in practice and many nursing disciplines with different practice directions. The approach is practical because it is based on individuals’ core needs and assumptions of the necessity to be healthy and care for patients from the nurses’ side (Gonzalo, 2019). The application of this theory in practice can be adaptable and flexible and allows professionals to reflect on their nursing competency when helping a patient maintain health and independence.

Henderson’s concept of utilizing the best practice approaches, including evidence-based research and advanced practice knowledge, can be seen as a foundation for any nursing process (Masters, 2015). It is assumed that patient-focused care based on an individual’s needs will help a person recover and maintain a decent health state. Nevertheless, the predicting outcomes cannot be fully drawn from Henderson’s theory that focuses on specific patient’s needs.

The example where this theory could be used is a situation when a patient is being treated in the therapeutic department, and his sleep has been disturbed for three days. The nurse should find out the cause of a sleep disorder and, with the patient, establish activities that would allow a patient to achieve as much independence as possible and pursue actions that would be the most appropriate, such as relaxation exercises or airing the room before going to bed.


The nursing need theory was tested by various researchers, generating different studies. There are numerous researches based on the approach with quantitative and qualitative study methods (Huitzi-Egilegor et al., 2014). One example of the recent research done using the theory was made by Ahtisham et al. (2015) when analysts aimed to develop the nursing theory application into clinical settings to deliver nursing care. The propositions of authors include statements, such as “one of the most contentious and enduring problems in nursing is the poor clinical observation,” “Henderson used the concepts of fundamental human needs, bio physiology…which give the theory a dynamic coverage regarding patients need” (Ahtisham et al., 2015, p. 449).


The theory is comprehensive and quite specific concerning primary needs that a patient has regarding illnesses. However, one can state that the theory tends to be more general than specific as it generalizes different patients and their needs without considering the particular care setting. The strengths of the theory are its broad application to all individuals of all ages, good interrelation of the main concepts, and the ability to add other ideas based on the discussed model. The models’ weaknesses are the lack of conceptual relationship between physiological and other human characteristics, exclusion of the holistic nature of an individual, and lack of an interconnection diagram that connects all needs.

I would use the nursing need theory in the advanced practice to base the approach on the individual’s needs and empathetically establish necessary activities with the patient. However, the advanced practice might require more recent models and theories that would reflect the patient’s behavior and positive outcomes that should be achieved. Nevertheless, Virginia Henderson’s approach is one of the first attempts to describe nursing as an independent profession. She offered a framework for working with the patient that later models of care used.


Ahtisham, Y & Sommer. J. (2015). Case study integrating nursing theory and process into practice; Virginia’s Henderson Need Theory. International Journal of Caring Sciences, 8(2), 443-450. Web.

Alligood, M. (2014). Nursing theorists and their work (8th ed.). Elsevier.

Gonzalo, A. (2019). Nurses Labs. Web.

(n.d.). Nursing Theory. Web.

Huitzi-Egilegor, J. X., Elorza-Puyadena, M. I., Urkia-Etxabe, J. M., & Asurabarrena-Iraola, C. (2014). Implementation of the nursing process in a health area: models and assessment structures used. Revista latino-americana de enfermagem, 22(5), 772–777. Web.

Masters, K. (2015). Models and theories focused on nursing goals and functions. In J. B. Butts, & K. L. Rich (Eds.), Philosophies and theories for advanced nursing practice (2nd ed., pp. 377-407). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

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