4 things doctors can learn from nurses about patient care

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 3, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Nurses are a vital part of any healthcare team, and this is reflected by public opinion—in fact, research shows that the American public hold them in higher esteem than physicians.

  • To improve their own standing, doctors can learn from nurses about collaboration, caring, and advocating for—as well as spending more time with—their patients.

  • Physicians will benefit from actively engaging with nurses and emulating their patient interaction skills.

Nurses are an integral component of the healthcare team. Without them, physicians couldn’t adequately treat patients.

The public recognizes the rarefied space that nurses occupy in the professional world. In a 2020 Gallup poll, Americans rated the honesty and ethics of nurses highest among all professions surveyed, with 85% claiming that nurses’ standards were “very high” or “high.”[]

These numbers, similar to those from 2018, mark the 18th year in a row nurses held this distinction. In comparison, physicians come in third on the list (under engineers).

The American public is on to something; the high regard they have for nurses is warranted.

Physicians can learn plenty from their nurse colleagues to enhance their clinical skills and compassion. Here are four areas in which nurses can provide lessons on caring for patients.

1. Collaboration

According to the results of a cross-sectional, descriptive study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, nurses have a better outlook on collaboration and joint training with physicians.[]

The authors also cited other studies supporting this enhanced sense of collaboration among nurses, which physicians can learn from. Teamwork, which is dependent on effective communication, is especially important in healthcare. With teamwork, the patient receives the best care.

2. Caring

The same study in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care also found that nurses have a better attitude about caring than physicians do. This distinction could serve as a learning point for doctors.

"The difference in attitude toward curing can be considered an important factor in impaired professional interactions, such that, caring is emphasized in nursing, and curing in medicine."

Mahboube et al.

“Yet, care and cure are so entwined that considering one without the other is unacceptable," the study authors added.

3. Advocating for patient safety

When a clinician is silent or ineffective in communicating, patient safety may be compromised. The term “assertive communication” refers to when a clinician speaks up and expresses concerns until a resolution is reached. According to an exploratory study published in BMJ Quality & Safety, nurses are more effective than physicians in communicating safety issues.[]

The study’s authors cited previous research which showed that underreporting of problems consistently occurs in healthcare, when clinicians recognize issues but don’t report them.

"The ability of clinicians to speak up about concerns is an essential component of all safety interventions, and the need for fundamental change is urgent."

Lyndon et al.

“A focus on what is best for the patient rather than on risks clinicians may face when speaking up about potential patient harm is needed to achieve ultra-safe care in everyday clinical practice," the authors continued. "Clinical leaders must ensure that clinicians are supported when raising concerns, regardless of whether their concerns prove entirely evidence-based.”

4. Spending more time with patients

In an opinion piece published in STAT, Haider Warraich, MD, argued that one of the reasons that polls find nurses are more trusted than physicians is because they spend more time with patients.[] He cited the extensive need for documentation as a factor that keeps physicians away from the bedside, whereas nurses routinely engage in direct patient care.

"If physicians are to regain the public’s confidence, we must emulate how nurses came to be the most trusted professionals in the United States. "

Haider Warraich, MD

“Systems should be designed, technologies developed, and payments configured in ways that allow physicians to spend more time with their patients," Warraich added. “Until that happens, we need to make whatever time we get count and really connect with patients,” he concluded. “Increasing gender and racial diversity among physicians is essential.”

What this means for you

Nurses and physicians work together to provide the best possible care to patients. Although their specific roles differ, there is still much a physician can learn from nurses. It behooves physicians to actively engage with nurses, and observe and emulate their interactions with patients.

Related: How is the boom in traveling nurses affecting healthcare during the pandemic?
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