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Doctors Vs Nurses: What Are The Differences?

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By Sheena Maireen Saavedra, BSN, R.N.

Pop quiz: How does a nurse differ from a doctor?

Answer: If you have lived in the period of our fathers like some fifty years ago, it would be something like this – the nurses wore the cap while the doctors wear the smock and the stethoscopes. The doctors are the gods of the medical team and the nurses are there to obediently follow and fulfill the orders of the doctors.

Clearly, the doctors have the upper hand in the whole medical scheme, and nurses just went on day by day with this job description difference without any fuss. Nurses just resolved to have a good laugh with the rat race, and left the idiots to chase it around.

But times are changing and nurses are becoming revolutionized, proving that the fact I mentioned above is now a common misconception. Nowadays, we have Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs), Nurse Practitioners (NP’s), and all those post-graduate positions that have given the nurse a job description that is almost at par with that of a physician.

Via: cfhi-fcass.ca
Via: cfhi-fcass.ca

We are stepping out into the wild, per se. We can now handle our patients individually and take control of their entire management of care, with the proper education and certification, minus the physician.

So to answer the question at hand, how do they differ now? Let’s go back to first base and tick out the obvious differences between the two.

It’s all about the length and scope of education

Doctors have a lengthier education time while nurses follow a basic baccalaureate scheme to start getting paid work. The said education length will determine and influence the salary of each profession, which would mean to say that the higher the education time, the higher the pay.

It’s all about the salary

On another note, let’s focus on this one objective finding. Doctors have a higher salary than the nurses, mainly because of their education, title, and license. While this may be indulging disparity, that is how the world have went on in the past, and will always be in the future. After all, they took almost two decades to get this license to be able to practice their profession, so I can only imagine the struggle and the sacrifice that the doctors have to endure.

The nurse, on the other hand, has to meet more or less similar educational terms to receive a similar fate as that of the doctor’s, salary wise. Meaning to say, nurses have to gather more master’s degrees and doctorate degrees to get a notch higher than that of a regular nurse. The more degree you have, the better salary you get which is, in a way, just fair play.

As per an article that I read, staff nurses start off with an average starting pay of $39,000 while registered nurses earn an average of $57,000 per year. Advanced practice nurses are among a higher earning group with the CRNA’s earning the highest and tripling the salary of that of a registered nurse, as high as $157,000 per year. Doctors on the other hand, earn an average of $160,000 to $240,000 per year, starting off if a doctor is a general practitioner up to doctors who are working in emergency areas or in surgery.

It’s all about the license

Basically, the doctors still take a much bigger responsibility regarding decision making. The license of the doctors, however, differs from a nurse in terms of specialty. Doctors are educated to have a single and linear path towards the specialization that they would want achieve. The license that they would acquire is for one field of practice only, which would mean they would go back to school if they would want to practice another field. On the other hand, the license of a nurse is for everyone, regardless of the case specialty of the patient.

There was a time when the medical team and the industry had experienced a shortage of physicians to meet the influx of patients seeking care. So to better up the game plan, the nurses were given the thumbs up to act as the limbs of the physicians and by that concept, have delegated some of their responsibilities to the nurses. Nurses are giving prescriptions, making a diagnosis, performing procedures, and are maintaining the steady progress of the patient according to specialty (yes, a nurse can choose their specialty nowadays once they decided to pursue a higher career path than that of a regular nurse). But this did not mean that doctors are now being superseded by the nurses. The doctors still have the ability to overrule the nurse’s’ judgment and actions.

It’s all about the schedule

Nurses work in set shifts of eight hours for five days in a week or 12 hours in four days in a week while doctors are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It’s all about the intimacy level

Nurses are more intimate with the patients while doctors barely had time to sit beside the patient to lounge and chit chat with them. Nurses are always there from admission to discharge, while the doctors are being called as the last resort if what the nurses did were no longer sufficient according to our scope or experience and expertise.

So let me bestow the final say, that the importance of nurses are still hidden behind various diplomas and social norms that we give the doctors in this society. But when you ask a common patient, you will be surprised when they will tell you this: “The doctor was the guy who came in to ask me what my complaints were and had left, while the nurse is the one who came in, asked me how my day was, offered me water, rearranged my pillow and gave me a comfortable back rub, and has been my immediate help and ears when all else fails and when I needed someone to talk to.”

So do we still need both when asking for medical attention?

As we conferred opinions on this matter, it will boil down to the fact that no one is greater than the other. Our differences in our job descriptions are no longer a relevant gauge. We are a team. Everyone played a different role and the absence of one would be critical. As society provided definitions and divisions of our titles by delegating these differences, we should not forget the fact that society is sometimes blind to some truths.

The line between nurses and doctors keep blurring.
The line between nurses and doctors keep blurring.

At this time, to say that nurses are lower than a doctor could bring outrageous reactions, especially from nurses. There is still truth to that statement though as technically, nurses still has to wait for the doctor’s final say on some matters. But we all know that nurses are crucial to the medical team.

Without us, who would carry out the orders of the doctor? How are we made into someone lower than the doctors when we are immediately beside the patient while the doctors are not?

More often than not, some of the newer resident doctors would often seek the expertise and advice of a senior nurse as basically, the senior nurse is wiser in terms of experience and past lessons brought about by past cases. Thus, it is justifiable to place the nurse as someone who is qualified to play proxy for the doctors whenever their presence is not around.

Medical interns learning the ropes.

Think about it, one doctor recently made a comment that went viral online. He stated that he chose to be a doctor as he was not brave enough to be a nurse. I salute his comment as he gave a notion that doctors admire and appreciate the existence of the nurse, and for that, I felt grateful.


Should I go to a medical school or should I stick to a nursing school?

Now here is a question that needs deliberation, especially if you are standing still in the middle ground between choosing a career as a nurse or as a physician. Basically, if you are in a tight budget, pursuing a career as a doctor would be next to impossible, unless having a scholarship is in your bag. You will have to consider a lot of factors before coming up with a decision as you don’t want to waste time and money for something that you will not like in the long run (read: just like choosing your lifetime partner).

What are doctors thinking?
What are doctors thinking? A look into the medical mind. Click to enlarge the infographic.

As a nurse, you will act as a liaison between the patient and the physician, while as a physician, it would mean you are the leader of the medical team.

As a nurse, you will be more intimate with your patient as you stay with them for the most part of their medical management, while being a physician would mean having a lot of census in your turf to even consider spending a lot of quality time per patient. Physicians treat the disease, while nurses treat the illness or your experience of the disease.

Then again, nurses turning doctors and vice versa is also becoming a common thing. So it is okay to shift to the other side if the other thing is not satisfactory for you. But whatever you choose, as long as your main intention is for the greater good and for your peace of mind, then by all means just follow your heart.

Sheena Maireen Saavedra is a registered nurse since 2007. She is working as a general nurse in Ireland since 2016 but was a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit and Coronary Care Unit when she was in the Philippines. As a person who continually challenges herself to expand her skill set, she ventured into different fields of the medical world, which includes working as a Product Performance Analyst and Quality Analyst in Boston Scientifics Inc, a medical company that manufactures Class III implantable devices such as pacemakers, ICDs, and CRTs. In general, she enjoyed being a nurse as it helped her meet all kinds of people – which impacted her life the most as she listened to their stories of triumph and tribulations. The profession has created avenues for her to make a difference to somebody’s life. This inspired her to write materials, guides and stories that served as sources of inspiration and help to the world around her, in particular to her fellow sisters and brothers of the industry.

2 thoughts on “Doctors Vs Nurses: What Are The Differences?”

  1. Let’s not forget that doctors also pay more and spend more of their working years in school than most nurses and that doctors have to pay an overhead at their clinics which is an expense that often puts their annual income lower than a nurse. And because of ahs rules, they often end up working for free. They have hours of no sleep and time away from family. When the clinic closes, they are still there making calls and doing paperwork and they do rotations in the local emergency rooms so they may be doing entire weeks where they are working both clinic and the ED. So the annual salary stated, is a before expenses and not take home.


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