Nurses Are Entitled to Respect from Physicians

nurses are entitled to respect

I think nurses are entitled to respect from physicians. That’s probably not a particularly controversial position, but some experiences (like this one) would argue otherwise.

A physician stormed out of the medical-surgical ward after screaming, “This M.D. after my name stands for ‘Makes Decisions!’  Your R.N. stands for ‘read the (expletive) note!’” 

I was shocked and disgusted when I heard a resident say that to one of our nurses when I was an intern.  This physician was notorious for such outrageous outbursts, but this crossed a line that I never imagined.  

After the nurse had a chance to gather herself back together, I went over to make sure she was ok.  The look of shame and sadness on her face was soul-crushing. 

I tried to offer what comfort I could by telling her that he was an ignoramus who was so bad at his job that he puts others down due to his own inferiority complex.  As you might expect, it didn’t help much. 

How does one shake off a confrontation like that?  It was horrifying to watch.  

My confrontation with that resident later demanding he apologize to her didn’t go very well either.  It turned out, his attending physician heard about the encounter and took him to task for it later.  Unfortunately, I’m sure that nurse still carries an emotional scar from that terrible exchange.  

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Nurses are entitled to respect as valuable team members

All too often, physicians and even patients regard nurses as “extras” or “helpers,” failing to account for their years of education, training, and on-the-job experience. 

As with all professionals, nurses have varying degrees of excellence.  Occasionally you’ll find a nurse who just isn’t very good, but I’ve found that to be the rare exception rather than the rule.  

The vast majority of the nurses I’ve worked with have been extraordinarily qualified.  They have been empathic with patients, respectful of my position, and exemplary in the performance of their duties. 

I’m supremely confident that I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for the kindness and coaching I have received from my nursing team over the years.  

Nurses go through rigorous courses of study in college and nursing school.  Many undergo advanced training in certain fields like nurse practitioners or nurse anesthetists. 

It’s true that their level of schooling is less than that of physicians on average.  However, it’s wrong to conflate that with lower qualifications or lower standards.  

When I was a resident, I spent a lot of time working with nurses in our hospital, many of whom had 15-20 years of clinical experience, and I learned a tremendous amount from them. 

I work with nurses every day, and I can say without a doubt that I couldn’t possibly do my job well without an outstanding nursing team working with me.  

Why is there so much doctor-nurse conflict?

There are a lot of articles and posts about the male doctor vs female nurse being largely a gender inequality issue.  Interestingly, I haven’t found that to be as consistent as social media and popular opinion would have us believe. 

I have heard female doctors complain bitterly about and curse at female nurses and I’ve seen both male and female nurses more qualified than both male and female doctors, especially during the early years of physician training.  

I think the line is more between physician and nurse, rather than male and female.  That said, I think it is right for nurses, regardless of gender, to expect that both male and female physicians will treat them with respect and professionalism.  

There’s a very unfortunate progression that happens between nurses and physicians, beginning in the early training years. 

During the early years of medical and surgical residency, the physician trainees clearly have less clinical experience than the nurses that work with them.  This can lead to an inferiority complex in the physicians and a superiority complex in the nurses. 

Combine this with the reality that the physicians are writing the orders that guide the patients’ care, and you create a complex dichotomy where the inexperienced physicians are leading the more experienced nurses.  This is unavoidable in the training world, but it creates extremely complex interpersonal dynamics.  

Most physicians and nurses find ways to navigate this relationship with grace and mutual respect, but there are some who inappropriately lash out, criticize, or put down their colleagues.  These interactions often leave scars that last for years, or even decades. 

As physician trainees begin to surpass the education and experience levels of their nursing team, they sometimes forget how little they knew at the beginning and how much their nurses helped them.  This leads them to treat nurses with less deference and respect, which justifiably causes nurses to resent them. 

It’s a tough cycle to break, and as physicians, it’s up to us to break it.  

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If nurses are entitled to respect, how do physicians make it better?

Physicians are in a position to break this cycle, and we MUST.  We absolutely depend on nurses to take care of patients. 

One of my mentors is fond of saying, “Doctors don’t get patients well.  Nurses get patients well, and the doctors aim the nurses.” 

I think that’s a good perspective.  Physicians have to hold each other accountable for enforcing the idea that nurses are invaluable members of the health care team, not just order-takers.  

I can tell you anecdotally that happy nurses will take better care of their patients.  I have observed that patients under the care of brash and overbearing physicians get visited less often by the nurses. 

The nurses are also understandably more reluctant to call the physician about potential problems early, which leads to missed opportunities for early intervention in many cases.  

So, Doc, if you want your patients to receive excellent care, you owe it to your patients to be nice to their nurses. 

At least once a shift, go out of your way to teach one of your nurses something, or say something kind, or tell their supervisor about how great a job they’re doing taking care of their patients.   

Nurses, you are entitled to respect from physicians.  You are not second-class citizens.  You are valuable.  Physicians need you.  Your patients need you. 

It’s not enough to get some cake during Nurse Appreciation Week.  You should be revered for the work you do, the sacrifices you make, and the diligence you display in caring for your patients. 

Thank you for working with us and beside us.  We couldn’t possibly do our jobs without you.  

Further reading

Physicians: Leave a comment below and tell us about a time when a nurse really saved you from making a mistake or just went above and beyond in caring for one of your patients.

Nurses: Leave a comment below and tell us about a time when a physician made you feel valued.  What are some ways that physicians can show you the respect you deserve?

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Comments (3)

  • i Have always looked up to Nurses because they work so hard just to make sure the person the are taking care of is safe and well. sometimes they even know their patient is going to die but they still do. this made me want to become a nurse, and i have been following that dream ever since. i have been looking forward to some interesting information in nursing for quite sometime now, and your site has really been useful.

  • As an RN for the last ten years who can count on ONE hand the number of MD’s I actually like (and I have had MANY different jobs as an RN), this was refreshing to read. I like that you said we made patients well and the MD pointed us in the direction – it does feel like that. I also know that I am more likely to consult with the attending about my patient’s condition if s/he is not an arrogant bully. Good patient care is all that matters in the end and we can only achieve that by working together within both our scopes of practice – neither is more important than the other. We are both crucial for the well-being of our patients. Thank you for your article. I wish this was taught in medical school.

    • Brandi-

      Thanks for the encouraging words! The more we treat each other as team members, professionals, and colleagues, the better we’ll all do!


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