Different types of physicians and how to work with them

Written by Katie Duke, MSN ACNP-BC

Nursing is about teamwork. Throughout your career, you’ll have to work alongside aides, techs, RTs, and, of course, doctors. Everyone has a different practice style and personality and even if a particular physician isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll need to work with them to provide the best care for your patients. Here are four types of physicians I’ve met as a nurse and how you can make the most of working with them.

Dr. Teamwork 

This kind of physician goes out of his or her way to see what the nurse thinks. Asking questions: “What do you think is the right treatment for this patient? Should we give him morphine or Tylenol? What’s your gut feeling on this guy?” Often the nurses on the unit have been doing the work for years and the physicians are new interns, or residents rotating from another unit or floor who haven’t gotten the lay of the land. 

When a doctor asks a nurse what he or she thinks about things, that’s part of being a collaborative team. This makes for the most productive and collaborative type of relationship. It makes it easier for everyone to work together. Everyone has a role, and when people play their roles correctly it leads to a well-functioning unit. 

This same kind of doctor is always learning, always asking questions that can lead them to understand more. They go to symposiums and seminars and ask similar kinds of questions. So you can learn from them. Ask them questions. They like teaching and they’re often really good at it.

Dr. Difficult-Personality 

For some reason, this physician doesn’t like anyone who’s not a doctor—not nurses, not administrators, and not physicians’ assistants. You’re always going to be walking on eggshells when you work together. And if you have an issue, there isn’t always an open door to walk in and talk about it. 

I have worked with a few physicians like this—and whenever I had to work with them I found myself not looking forward to the shift. I knew it would be an issue to speak to them about cases, ask for pain medications, or express my nursing assessments. It was uncomfortable. But let’s be honest—every profession has people like this. Not just doctors. 

What can you do? Honestly, not much except your job. Stop trying to be best friends, and don’t try and change what can’t be changed. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best nurse or hardest worker on the unit—this type of personality will neither change, nor their demeanor soften. However, once you realize it’s not personal, it may be easier to get through the shift.   

Dr. Know-It-All 

There are some physicians that can often come across as—well, I won’t sugarcoat it—a know-it-all. And chances are they probably do know a lot, with all the cumulative years of research and experience. The point, however, is that it’s often difficult to work with them, especially when it comes to sharing ideas or voicing opinions. They may even clash with other doctors. 

Book-smart is different than being street-smart, or “experience-smart”.  You can be the most educated and knowledgeable provider but have the worst bedside manner, or may not always decide on the best plan of care for patients. They can be hesitant to try new things, and they sometimes rely on what’s in the books and what the numbers are rather than thinking about what that particular patient needs.

As nurses, we have to be ok with stepping in, because we are the advocates. You have to have the confidence to pull those doctors aside and point out the things you think they’re not taking into account. You have to be willing to step in and offer your perspective, the views you’ve developed from experience. You have to be willing to speak up, even if the doctor has 1,000 diplomas on the wall.  

Dr. Gets-Along 

Finally, every unit has those truly special doctors who are selfless, passionate, and always good with ALL the staff. They’re the kind of physicians who will crack a joke, laugh at a good story, or order pizza for everyone after a rough evening shift.  They greet the staff by name and address, and the supportive staff with the same demeanor and tone as they greet the medical director. They appreciate everyone at the hospital. 

They’re great to be around because they make the job easier. You’re not only able to enjoy your shift, but patient care is smoother when you have a positive healthy relationship with the other half of your team involved in care. That’s the kind of culture we need more of. That’s the kind of culture that makes health care delivery work as it should. Health care is stressful. Having a positive personality in someone who you are free to approach and who’s equally receptive and respectful can really make the often chaotic and unpredictable work environment more bearable. 

Some physicians you can learn from, some are looking for knowledge from you, some will be your friends, and some will remain strictly as colleagues you see at work. Fortunately, bad apples are the exception, not the rule. The majority of relationships between physicians and nurses are positive. It takes a special person to work in health care, and a very special person to become a physician or a nurse.

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