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What Is Empiricism in Nursing Theory?

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Nursing theory, according to Marilyn Parker in "Nursing Theories and Nursing Practice," is that which explains circumstances and events in patient care, thereby providing an understanding that can applied in nursing practice and research. Empiricism is usually understood as a reliance on experience or experimentation to gain an understanding of a set of circumstances. Therefore, empiricism is a valuable aid to the nurse in delivering quality patient care.


Empiricism, according to Barbara Stevens Barnum in "Nursing Theory," is part of the "positivist" view, or school of thought. This view is based on the classical experimental design and hypothesis testing, what is often called the scientific method. This view, or model, emphasizes "controls, quantitative procedures, and statistical manipulations." This method looks at the component parts of the phenomena, or circumstance, under study.


The positivist model serves to "describe the interrelationships" between the parts of the observed phenomena. The objective, according to Stevens Barnum, is to "create explanatory theory" and "situation-producing theory." Empiricism, therefore, seeks to explain the symptoms or condition of the patient and the factors which produced the condition. Empiricism formulates this explanation through observation and testing.

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Empiricism is vital in applying nursing theory to patient care. According to Peggy Chinn in "Advances in Nursing Theory Development," nursing theory is comprised of "concepts, definitions and propositions" regarding the patient and the health care environment. However, the concepts of nursing theory must be linked to the concrete situation of the patient. This linking process is called "empirical relevance" and refers to the "correspondence between a particular concept (theory) and objective empirical data (observed characteristics)." Empiricism is a bridge linking nursing theory to nursing practice.


Empiricism, through the collection of data and observations, allows for the articulation, or expressing, of nursing concepts, as suggested by Afaf Meleis in "Theoretical Nursing." Once the concept is expressed, it is easier to describe, explain, predict or prescribe nursing care procedures.


The significance of empiricism in nursing theory and practice is profound. Empiricism provides a functional, or practical, aspect to nursing theory. It has helped to foster the academic aspect of nursing. Empiricism is complementary to nursing ethics, which emphasizes patient dignity and care. By understanding the conditions of the patient, in a scientific context, the nurse can deliver enhanced patient care within the health care institution.

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