Dorothea Orem: Pioneer of the Self-Care Nursing Theory

Dorothea Orem: Pioneer of the Self-Care Nursing Theory

If ever there was a nurse who joined the profession to help others improve their lives, it was Dorothea Orem (1914-2007). Orem’s Self-care Theory of Nursing established her as a leading theorist of nursing practice and education.

Nurses in the Family

After graduating from Seton High School in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1931, Orem went to the Providence Hospital of Nursing in Washington, D.C., where two of her aunts worked. She graduated, gained clinical experience in the operating room and became an adult medical-surgical and pediatric staff nurse as well as an emergency room evening supervisor. In 1939, Orem earned a BSN from The Catholic University of America in D.C., and started teaching nursing and biological sciences at the Providence Hospital School of Nursing in Detroit, Michigan. She earned an MSN in Nursing Education in 1945 from The Catholic University.

Teaching and Research

After earning the MSN, Orem became the director of Providence Hospital School of Nursing in Detroit. She went on to work for the Indiana State Board of Health in the Division of Hospital and Institutional Services. There, she strived to improve the quality of nursing in hospitals throughout the state.

During this time, Orem began developing her nursing theory. She joined her alma mater, The Catholic University, in 1959, and went on to teach there for over a decade and serve as dean for a year. Orem also was a consultant for the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare, upgrading practical nurse education. She consulted for many colleges and universities to help develop their curriculums, and published a guidebook on the topic.

An Answer to Why People Need Nurses

In 1971, Orem’s career as an author began with the publication of her book, Nursing: Concepts in Practice (now in its sixth edition). This book was the original foundation for her theory of self-care, a concept that is still taught in nursing colleges to this day.

This broad theory she defined as “the act of assisting others in the provision and management of self-care to maintain or improve human functioning at home level of effectiveness.” Orem’s theory focuses on each individual and “the practice of activities that individuals initiate and perform on their own behalf in maintaining life, health, and well-being.”

Orem’s Theory of Nursing

There are three parts to Orem’s general theory of nursing:

  • The theory of self-care, which focuses on the performance or practice of activities that individuals perform on their own behalf. Those might be actions to maintain one’s life and life functioning, develop oneself or correct a health deviation or condition.  
  • The theory of self-care deficit, which defines when nursing is needed because a person is limited or incapable of providing self-care and needs help.
  • The theory of nursing system, which focuses on the relationship between a nurse and a client and the wholly or partial compensatory nursing system and supportive-educative system that takes place between nurse and a person.

A Foundation of Empowerment

Karen Whitham, associate dean of nursing and healthcare programs at American Sentinel University, says that Orem’s nursing theory of self-care “is about putting the patient in a place to perform self-care and continue to do more as able” and offers an excellent foundation for American Sentinel’s nursing curriculum.

“Like most colleges of nursing, our goal is to provide nurses with the resources and support to empower themselves,” says Dr. Whitman. “Orem’s theory was revolutionary for its time and raised the idea that nurses should provide holistic care and not just treat injuries. Today, that theory is the basis for what we all teach in nursing school: that nurses must be critical thinkers who adjust their care based on the situation, the patient, their own knowledge and the desired outcome.”

Honored and Revered

Orem was presented with many awards and honorary degrees, including the Linda Richards Award from the National League for Nursing in 1991. She was named an Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing in 1992. When she died in 2007, she left behind a legacy that guides the practice of nursing—and her theories have been upheld and refined since.

Through Additional Education, Nurses Can Become Better Equipped

American Sentinel’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Master of Science in Nursing and Doctor of Nursing Practice programs help nurses learn how to assess the self-care practices and self-care deficits of their patients in order to become more skilled nurses. These programs also allow students to gain knowledge and market-relevant expertise and even specialize in different focus areas.

Visit us online or call 866.922.5690 to learn how more about how American Sentinel’s BSN, MSN and DNP programs can help you become the best nurse possible and achieve your goals.


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