Doctors and nurses have complementary roles in health care delivery.
Doctors and nurses are the backbone of our health care system. Of course, many other medical professionals, such as orderlies, radiology technicians and dietitians are employed in the health care industry, but the vast majority of diagnosis and patient care is performed by doctors and nurses. Physicians obviously have more education than nurses and can prescribe medication, but depending on the health care setting, there can be significant overlap in the responsibilities of doctors and nurses.
Duties of Doctors
Physicians are highly educated medical professionals who spend four years in medical school after getting an undergraduate degree and then undertake a 3- to 6-year residency working hands-on with practicing professionals in their specialty. Doctors diagnose and treat patients, including prescribing medications. Some physicians perform surgeries, others are internists or general practice doctors, and some choose to become specialists such as neurologists, cardiologists or anesthesiologists. Doctors make decisions regarding patient care and then consult with nurses and other medical professionals to make sure the care instructions are carried out.
Duties of Nurses
Registered nurses (RNs) typically have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing or a related field and have passed a comprehensive state licensing exam. Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) have just one year of training, but also have to pass a licensing exam. Nurses serve in a variety of patient care and support roles in hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities. Depending on the setting, RNs may also have a role in diagnosis and treatment decisions for patients. Advanced practice nurses are a relatively new category of nurse who have gone back to school to receive additional training, and their duties are often very similar to those of doctors.
Expanding Role of Nurses in Health Care
The patient care responsibilities of nurses have been gradually expanding for several decades. Part of the reason is that 21st century nurses have to be better educated because of the dramatic increase in the complexity of diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions and the need for specialization, but a good bit of it has also been driven by long-standing shortages of some types of physicians, particularly in rural areas. In many underserved rural areas, nurses provide virtually all of the basic health care services, and patients have to travel to see doctors for more serious conditions.
Relationship Between Doctors and Nurses
The expanding role of nurses in patient care has naturally led to some frictions between doctors and nurses. This friction has grown over the last few decades with the rapid growth in advanced practice nurses, with the result that while individual doctors and nurses get along well for the most part, the professional organizations representing the two groups are frequently at loggerheads. The main bones of contention are doctors’ claims that advanced practice nurses don’t know as much as doctors and reduce the quality of patient care, and nurses (and economists) arguing that the care is just as good and we have to use nurses in more roles to keep costs down.
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