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MSN Course Insight: Understanding the Definition of Nursing

Expert reading in nursing school details the profession’s four essential characteristics.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree programs provide students with opportunities to immerse themselves in career specializations while broadening their knowledge in foundational courses that explore topics like leadership and research.

Issues and Trends in Nursing is one of those core courses for students in Walden University’s online MSN program. As a student in this course, you’ll receive an overview of the evolution of nursing as a profession and learn how the definition of nursing has evolved, too.


In a key reading assignment in the course, Catherine E. Neuman, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, explores nursing’s identity and its four essential characteristics in “Nursing’s Social Policy Statement,” from The Essential Guide to Nursing Practice: Applying ANA’s Scope and Standards in Practice and Education.

In the following excerpt, read along with Walden’s online nursing school students to learn how Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, defined the profession, and how it has changed through the years:1

Definition of Nursing

Florence Nightingale (1859, p. 9) defined nursing as having charge of the personal health of somebody: “And what nursing has to do … is to put the patient in the best condition for nature to act upon him.”

Later, Virginia Henderson (1960, p. 42) defined the purpose of nursing: “To assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will, or knowledge, and to do this in such a way as to help him gain independence as rapidly as possible.”

Nursing was defined in the original Nursing: A Social Policy Statement (ANA, 1980, p. 9) as “the diagnosis and treatment of human responses to actual or potential health problems.” The current definition in the 2010 Nursing’s Social Policy Statement: The Essence of the Profession remains unchanged from that in the 2004 edition: “Nursing is the protection, promotion, and optimization of health and abilities; prevention of illness and injury; alleviation of suffering through the diagnosis and treatment of human response; and advocacy in the care of individuals, families, communities, and populations (ANA, 2010b, p. 10).”

This definition encompasses four essential characteristics of nursing: human responses or phenomena; theory application; nursing actions or interventions; and outcomes:

  • Human responses are the responses of individuals to actual or potential health problems of concern to nurses, including any observable need, concern, condition, event, or fact of interest that may be the target of evidence-based nursing practice.
  • Theory application is built on understanding theories of nursing and other disciplines as a basis for evidence-based nursing actions.
  • Nursing actions are theoretically derived and evidence-based and require well-developed intellectual competencies. Their goal is to protect, promote, and optimize health; to prevent illness and injury; to alleviate suffering; and to advocate for all populations.
  • Outcomes of nursing actions produce beneficial results in relation to identified human responses. Evaluation of those actions determines whether they have been effective. Findings from nursing research provide rigorous scientific evidence of beneficial outcomes of specific nursing actions.

Take Your Nursing Career to the Next Level

Walden’s RN to MSN online degree program offers stimulating coursework with diverse perspectives on nursing, such as those found in Neuman’s concise and informative article. Through weekly discussions and assignments, you’ll explore and share personal experiences in contemporary nursing. The course will challenge you to examine and propose solutions to nursing issues, including those you encounter in your workplace.

Walden’s rich MSN degree experience can further your current nursing career or point you in a new direction. For working professionals, online nursing schools like Walden’s are an exceptional choice. You can continue working while studying and training to further your career. And with a master’s in nursing, you can define and shape your future.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree program with specializations to fit your goals and passions. Expand your career options and earn a degree online in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,