Virginia Henderson’s Need Theory in Nursing

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Virginia Henderson heavily influenced developments in nursing not only through her definition of practice but also through multiple publications and the establishment of the need theory. The theory centered on the requirement of patient well-being after their release from the hospital and the role of nurses in helping them to achieve the level of autonomy that would allow them to practice self-care.

The introduction of this theoretical framework incentivized a different approach to the capacity of nurses and rethought their duty to both the doctor and the patient. Thus, the impact of Henderson’s theory affected the roles of all three actors of the healthcare system: doctors, nurses, and patients, and led to the advancement of patient independence regarding their healthcare after their discharge.


The creation of theories relies on the presence of people who need them and require a defined, practical use for their existence. The establishment of such concepts in nursing was stimulated by the need for “nursing [to] have its own identity with its conceptual models, and not borrow[ing] from other disciplines” (Goodson, 2018, p. 98). This definition of nursing as an individual practice, unrelated to physicians or doctors, needed a set of rules that outlined the role of the profession, its subject, and object.

The need theory thus closely links in development with the role of the nurse, which Henderson conceptualized and published relatively early in her career, first in 1955, and then in 1966 with minor revisions (Masters, 2015). In the final stages, researchers have developed her need theory into the fourteen components of nursing care, enumerating the criteria for adequate patient recovery (Alligood, 2018; Gordon, 2015). This was a significant improvement since the start of Henderson’s career and her active nursing practice during the First World War. The nurse, as a healthcare actor, changed from a background role whose primary function was following doctor’s orders to a position focused on the patient and capable of making rules to secure their wellbeing.

Development of Syntax

The role and capacity of nurses in inpatient recovery is the concept that has been subjected to the most addendums throughout the development of the need theory. The initial argument by Henderson characterized nursing as a “unique function,” stressing not only the scientific skills required but also the mentioned empathy and understanding (Masters, 2015, p. 38). Later, in 1991, she would go on to say that nurses should be recognized as the only “authority on basic nursing care” (Masters, 2015, p. 39). As the nursing profession became more independent and self-defined, its status and the amount of authority exercised by nurses increased and called for a further redefinition of their role.

Process of Testing

The recognition of the need theory was widespread since it was not created to instill a rigid code of conduct, but rather at explaining the behavior exhibited by nurses. Perhaps an even more critical part of Henderson’s work was the factor that she was attempting to inspire others to follow suit and create additional and complementary concepts for nursing (Gordon, 2015). Her work motivated further study and theorization, with Abdellah and Adam utilizing and developing her idea of self-help in their theories (Alligood, 2018). Hence, the need theory was successful in not only separating nurses and doctors as performing differing healthcare duties but also aiding the further development of nursing theories.


Healthcare professionals, mainly the target nurse audience, implemented the need theory due to its dual practical and theoretical nature. Thorne’s paper (2015) quotes Henderson on the nurses’ role being “to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health… that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will, or knowledge” (p. 85). The implementation of select points of the need theory seems instinctive for nursing practitioners and hence creates a reasonable system of guidelines on nurse behavior.

Appraisal of Henderson’s perception of nursing could only be achieved with its implementation, judging the results over a significant period. Despite Henderson, herself is not identifying her works as a theory of nursing, or as being all-encompassing of all scopes of practice, her publications and ideas are still recognized as characterizing the profession (Masters, 2015). Containing the hypotheses tested for a practical approach, today “Henderson’s work is viewed as a nursing philosophy of purpose and function” (Alligood, 2018, p. 15). Thus, the utility and scientific basis of her works raise no questions and assign her a paramount role in the development of nursing.


The need theory and the following fourteen components of nursing care redefined nursing after the First World War and identified nursing as a separate profession. Inspired by a lack of a theoretical base in nursing and the indistinct role that nurses were assigned, as compared to other healthcare professionals, Henderson developed what she considered guidelines. Throughout her life, Henderson expanded and redefined her ideas, striving for an enveloping definition of nurse behavior, with her theory constantly evolving, just as the role of nurses in health care. Today, these guidelines create a theoretical base for nursing practitioners and continue inspiring precedent for further developments in the profession.


Alligood, M. (2018). Nursing theorists and their work (9th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.

Goodson, P. (2018). Theory as practice. In J. Butts & K. Rich (Eds.), Philosophies and theories for advanced nursing practice (3rd ed.) (pp. 75-90). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Gordon, S. (2015). Early conceptualizations about nursing. In M. Smith & M. Parker (Eds.), Nursing theories and nursing practice (4th ed.) (pp. 55-66). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Company.

Masters, K. (2015). Nursing theories: A framework for professional practice (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Thorne, S. (2015). Finding a language of engagement. Nursing Inquiry, 22(2), 85. Web.

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NursingBird. "Virginia Henderson's Need Theory in Nursing." January 28, 2021.