If you’ve watched any of the popular television shows of the last two decades, you’ve most likely come across one that deals with the topic of the relationship between doctors and nurses. Dramatized, turned into a comedy, and filled with inaccuracies, these depictions can make it difficult for nursing students to know exactly where they stand. Although the best training is a few years on the job, many nursing schools make it a point to teach the best ways to navigate the hospital and health care system—including how you should treat the doctors you work with every day.
Physicians as Employers: If you get a nursing job working in a doctor’s office or other small health care setting, there’s a good chance that the practice will belong to the physician or a co-op of physicians. This generally means that the physician is your boss, and you will report directly to him or her. Although your state’s nursing requirements and general medical ethics will dictate part of how you do your job, the doctor’s requests are just as important. This might mean that you have more responsibilities than you expected (perhaps overseeing a team of other health care workers) or less (maybe doubling as nurse and nursing assistant). If you aren’t happy with the relationship that exists in this setting, the only real solution is to find new employment.
Physicians in a Hospital Setting: If you are employed as a nurse in a hospital, the hospital is your employer—not a doctor. While doctors will almost always outrank you, the truth is that they can rarely order you around or ask you to do things that aren’t in your job description. This is where a lot of the doctor-nurse tension comes into play. For example, an orthopedic nurse with 20 years of experience might feel upset at being told to do something by a doctor who’s been on the job for 2 months. This becomes especially difficult when the doctor might spread his or her care over several hospitals as well as a personal practice. The nurse, who cares for the patient 8 hours of every day, might feel antagonistic toward a doctor who sees the patient for 8 minutes each week.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution for this type of situation. A doctor’s orders will always trump a nurse’s, but doctors can’t do their jobs well if they don’t have a good working relationship with the nursing staff. And like any profession, both nurses and doctors will have their “favorites” when it comes to working with one another.
The best nursing schools teach students how to put the focus back on the patient, and not on any personal feelings between professionals. Many times, this will be covered in a medical ethics class, or during clinicals or an internship situation. Of course, experience is usually the best teacher, and you will continue to navigate these relationships as you move through your profession.
It may not be easy—and it may not be like it is on TV—but working together to save lives is the most important thing you can do.