Differences Between Nurses and Doctors
Many of us assume we know the main difference between a doctor and a nurse: the doctor does the main work of curing, treating, or healing a patient, and a nurse assists them.
This is certainly the way that medical environments have been traditionally portrayed in the media and in pop culture and has been reinforced by discourses that privilege the status of doctors over nurses: how often have you heard of parents pressuring their children into becoming nurses? Becoming a doctor, on the other hand, is a highly desirable and respected career path.
In fact, doctors and nurses occupy completely different and equally important roles in healthcare environments. Together, they make up only part of the complex teams of people who are responsible for running clinics, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, and all other medical spaces. Where doctors get much of the glory for the work that they do, a great deal of the actual day-to-day treatment and healing of patients is entirely the responsibility of nurses.
Knowing the difference between doctors and nurses seems as though it may be inconsequential, but misconceptions around the distinction between these two roles can actually be quite problematic.
For example, if you’ve ever been in a busy hospital waiting area, or even in a crowded hospital room, knowing whether to try and get the attention of a passing doctor or nurse with your question could save everyone in the place time and effort – and could even save your life!
Or, if you are seeking to begin a career in the medical field but don’t know which path to choose, understanding the difference between nursing and doctoring in practice is critical to picking the degree you’re going to commit the next three to five years of your life to completing. To help give you a basic understanding of this topic, below are a few of the major differences between nurses and doctors.
1. Doctors Assess; Nurses Enact
The first major difference between a doctor and a nurse is the main role they are intended to play in a healthcare setting. As a part of a broader medical team, the doctor ultimately acts as the leader: it is the role of a doctor to assess health concerns – whether injury or illness – using the knowledge they have gained from their time studying at medical school, and outline a plan for treatment.
There are different levels of medical decision-making in medicine, and a doctor is trained rigorously to be able to use all of them appropriately in first assessing a patient and then developing an appropriate plan to treat them. Once that plan has been completed, the doctor can move on, and it becomes the responsibility of the nurse or nurses (depending on the length of time and complexity involved in the plan) to put it into action so that the patient can recover.
Unlike programs that train doctors, the training to become a nurse does not prepare individuals to diagnose and develop treatment programs for patients. It does, however, provide detailed specialist knowledge on how to go about the actual work of treatment. In this way, nurses and doctors are trained from the get-go to occupy different but equally crucial roles within the medical environment.
2. Specializations and Training
Both doctors and nurses must undergo the appropriate training to be able to work in healthcare, but the way in which that training is structured differs very much between the two professions.
Ultimately, what distinguishes doctors within the medical environment is that they are trained to have a specialty area of expertise: this could be anything from hematology (blood and blood-related diseases and illness) to pediatrics (children’s health and medicine – not to be confused with podiatry, which is foot and feet ailments and infections), or osteopathy (issues with bones and joints). Even general practitioners (family doctors or doctors who run clinics for a variety of standard medical issues) are their own special branch of the profession.
Nurses, on the other hand, are specifically trained to be able to effectively and safely treat all types of ailments. This requires less specialized knowledge but a broader range of it. Nursing programs are organized accordingly. Although nurses don’t normally specialize in the same way that doctors do, they can be trained to take on more responsibility within their field by becoming nurse practitioners.
Nurse practitioners (NPs) are trained to recognize certain basic health and medical problems as well as undertake the steps to treat them. Many nursing programs offer NP clinicals as additional to standard training so that nurses can take on more responsibility in their medical work.
3. Pay and Hours
One of the main differences between doctors and nurses is the hours they work and for how much money. Although it is believed by many that doctors are paid very highly, this is only true once an individual has completed their medical residency (six years of working hands-on in a hospital or other healthcare environment). Only once they have become a proper doctor do the big bucks start coming in.
Of course, with a great salary comes great responsibilities. Being that doctors are responsible for making the medical decisions regarding patients, they are required to be on-call more often, and to stay longer hours at the hospital or clinic. This is to ensure that every patient is assessed and given an appropriate treatment plan, something that nurses cannot do.
Nurses make less on average than doctors – the yearly annual salary for a nurse in the US from 2020 to 2021 was about $80,000 – but, although they do often work long hours, they aren’t frequently on-call like doctors are. This makes scheduling shifts around life easier, as well as taking holiday time. Although they may not have the benefit of as large a salary as doctors, nurses do have the luxury of being able to leave at the end of their shift regardless of what new patients have come in.