The key differences between doctors and nurses

What’s the difference between a doctor and a nurse? People used to assume that doctors are highly educated while nurses have only a few months’ worth of vocational training; that doctors earn high salaries while nurses are on minimum wage, and that doctors are mostly men and nurses are women. If those things were ever true, they’re certainly not anymore. Today all sorts of people go into nursing, they can enjoy high earnings, and they tend to keep studying throughout their careers. Many earn PhDs and go on to do important research. So, what exactly distinguishes the two professions today?

A different approach

While they may have led to similar results, the philosophical origins of doctoring and nursing are very different: doctors focus on treating diseases while nurses focus on treating patients. Doctors are interested in identifying and treating the causes of patients’ problems, whereas nurses are more focused on symptoms, a patient’s experience while in their care, and how to make them feel better. Doctors take a more academic approach, and nurses act first and foremost as healers.

This different approach is easy to see when looking at the ways that doctors and nurses specialize over the course of their careers. Doctors tend to focus on specific types of condition or specific organs, such as infectious diseases or cardiac (heart) issues, whereas nurses tend to specialize in particular types of patient, such as children (pediatrics) or elderly people (gerontology).

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Academic vs. practical learning

Although both academic and hands-on learning is needed in both professions, doctors tend to spend significantly longer than nurses on learning theory before they’re qualified to start taking on responsibility of patients. Nurses do more of their training on the job and in patient-focused environments. On average, they also do more ongoing training over the course of their careers and have more opportunities to undertake additional training on their own initiative but with the support of their employers.

These different approaches mean that doctors tend to have better in-depth knowledge of specific areas and nurses tend to have a broader range of skills. Some choose to specialize and pursue a more academic route later in their careers – potentially becoming doctors of nursing.

Different duties

Doctors’ duties include diagnosing and treating diseases, ordering tests and other forms of examination, reviewing the results of such procedures and developing treatment plans. Nurses do more direct work with patients, such as treating wounds and applying dressings, administering drips, weighing and measuring patients and helping them, where necessary, with tasks like washing and dressing.

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Although, in theory, both doctors and nurses are involved in work designed to promote good health and prevent illness developing in the first place, the reality is that in most clinical settings, nurses do much more of it. They tend to have more time to spend on getting to know patients and identifying the day to day issues, such as poor diet or lack of exercise, which increase their risk of developing serious health complications.

Career options

Becoming a doctor has long been seen as a career triumph, and it’s still a highly respected, well-paid job, but it doesn’t provide as much flexibility as nursing. As they advance in their careers, doctors have a narrower range of career options available to them. They also face tougher competition for the top jobs. If they have a significant advantage, it’s that they can expect to generate a better income more quickly if they decide to set up independently.

There’s a much higher demand for nurses, proportionate to their numbers, so it’s easier for individuals to get access to the roles they want. Nurses are also needed for jobs in a wider range of environments, making it easier for them to pursue developing interests and also find jobs which can be fitted around other aspects of their lives.

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The opportunities available to nurses vary by state because some place restrictions on them which are absent elsewhere, requiring parts of their work to be directly supervised by doctors regardless of how much training or experience they have. Some nurses decide that they want to take a different approach to medicine and actually become doctors, but that rarely happens the other way round.

If you want to focus on understanding and directly tackling disease in a role which carries a lot of authority but requires a big investment in education upfront, being a doctor may be the right choice for you. If you prefer the idea of taking a person-centered approach in a career which gives you the chance to learn on the job, with lots of flexibility going forward, then you may be better suited to nursing. Whichever you choose, you’ll find it intensely rewarding, not just financially but because you’ll know that you’re making a real positive difference to people’s lives.

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