Why Nursing Philosophy Needs a Philosophy of Health

Wordle: Health Philosophy
Plain Talk:  Nursing philosophy is the reasoning behind why we do nursing the way we do.  Go deeper:  Why we do nursing the way we do is dependent upon whatever we think ‘health’ is.  Whatever we think ‘health’ is reflects our beliefs about the purpose and experience of human life.

The Tortures of Nursing Theory Class

I dreaded the required graduate nursing theory class in 1997.  Who created this mental torture chamber and charged me good money for it?  Self-preservation requires you avoid these things.  Besides,  I would never use nursing theory or philosophy, or so I thought, because, come on, that is of absolutely no use in my work as an ER/trauma nurse.  Need I say my attitude was terrible?

Aha!

Life has a way of mocking us when we reach, years later, an “aha” moment –  that moment of insight in which the past comes to bear on the present in surprise and wonder.  It was a moment when I realized that perhaps part of the reason nursing theory was so disdained by everyday nurses is that the ‘way’ we do nursing reflects our beliefs about health and human experience, and theory did not seem to capture the depth of reality we experience in practice.  Nursing practice is characterized by encounters with hearts and souls abiding in bodies, and the essence of nursing practice is grounded in how we relate to and support others through the healing process that engages skills and clinical knowledge.

Getting Down to the Real Problem

Nursing philosophy explains what nursing is and why nurses practice nursing the way they do. Nursing theory explains how nurses and patients create health and healing, by using models to describe how concepts and factors of health are related. It’s no wonder that nurses and nursing students thumb their nose at philosophy and theory, because if we don’t know, or haven’t articulated, the fundamental tenets of health in a way that is consistent with the human experience, then the disconnect from philosophy to practice will remain.

To blame nursing philosophy and theory is to make nursing the scapegoat for the bigger, more obscure problem:  the absence of a well-developed philosophy of health.  

Naivete and accepting the status quo in nursing philosophy is killing us.  We must develop philosophies of health that underpin nursing philosophy, theory, and practice.  Part of the key lies in drawing on what we intuitively know about wellness and illness, and what we know through actual experience about how patients heal.  The psychology scholars have done some marvelous work on well-being and happiness.  Tying those findings into health is OUR job, and creating those ties require a workable philosophy of health.

This is the path that led me to create the Perspectival Well-Being Model in which well-being is mediated by our sense of belonging in social relationships to others, by our sense of virtue, and the need to care for ourselves.  I posit that personal well-being is not grounded in self-centric thoughts and activities, but in being and acting in our worlds through virtue and relationship.  By focusing on the unbreakable tie between virtue, self, and others, there is plenty of room for the current understanding of health as a function of well-being and vice versa.  It is broad enough to account for a spectrum of health experiences:  from the well-being of the terminally ill or severely injured, to the ill-being of the socially isolated but physically healthy person.

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