Communication with Doctors | Tips for Nurses

When communication begins to break down between you and other members of the medical staff, you can feel it. There’s a certain unspoken tension in the room, a frustration lying just below the surface of every interaction you have with that individual. You aren’t sure what they are thinking or how they’ll react to you, and it makes you start to second-guess every decision you make.

This communication challenge is especially frustrating when you can’t seem to communicate properly with the doctors on staff. After all, you’re both here for the same reason, right? To help your patients, heal them, and make them feel better. But this miscommunication gets in the way of all that, and at its core, it can lead to uncoordinated and sloppy care—something that no nurse or doctor wants in their practice.

Luckily, there are a few techniques you can use as a nurse to make sure you maintain solid communication throughout your shift and to guarantee your patients are receiving the quality of care they deserve.

The Effect of Better Communication with Doctors

While there are several obvious instances where communication is key in your day-to-day work, good communication between you and the rest of the staff—in particular, the doctors—provides an important framework in other, less obvious ways as well.

For instance, one study from the University of Michigan states that poor communication between doctors and nurses is a leading factor in healthcare mistakes. The article goes on to identify the main drivers behind this poor communication, namely power imbalances inherent to hospital hierarchy.

At the end of the day, better communication correlates with better patient outcomes. Sometimes better communication can be built from your ability to clearly and quickly communicate vital information to a doctor during a specific procedure; in other cases, it could require the widespread leveling of power disparities in a hospital.

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Either way, nurses hoping to build better communication at their workplaces have a few good options for doing so.

Speak Up!

doctor speaking to nurse

In many studies, including the one mentioned above, nurses report a fear of speaking up and giving their honest opinions to overbearing or condescending doctors.

The truth is that nurses typically spend the most time with patients and are often the first to notice lingering symptoms, potential side effects, or persistent patient complaints. When nurses don’t feel comfortable communicating this information to the doctors administering care, the patient may suffer from this lack of communication.

That said, nurses shoulder a very real risk when they speak up. For a frustrated or overworked doctor, hearing a dissenting opinion from a nurse may be the final straw. When paired with power imbalances that clearly favor doctors, this volatility can result in a tremendous amount of anxiety for the dissenting nurse.

Having the courage to speak up and offer clear and level-headed observations to a doctor can be hard, but it’s often the foundation on which real communication is built. At times, you will feel ignored, belittled, or scared, but your hands-on experience with patients is incredibly valuable to doctors, and many of them recognize the need for that information, regardless of their headspace at the moment.

Empathy for Doctors

Always remember that doctors are human: nothing more and nothing less.

A doctor coming out of a multi-hour surgery—especially if it’s a surgery that hasn’t gone well—has been pushed to the absolute limit and may react accordingly.

Of course, on-the-job stress is no excuse for a disrespectful attitude towards nursing staff. As a nurse, your job is never easy either, and you deserve respect in every aspect of your job. Draw a line in every interaction, offering empathy and support for doctors’ difficult jobs while refusing to accept any inherently disrespectful interactions.

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Over time, these clear boundaries can help your doctor reciprocate the respect and empathy you have shown them. And in time, shared empathy will mean a better work environment and better teamwork, among many other benefits.

A United Front

At times, you may feel that doctors are undermining your role in the healthcare process. Indeed, when a doctor ignores your suggestions in front of a patient or acts as though you didn’t communicate an important piece of information, you may feel bitter or resentful for some time afterward. From then on, you may have trouble trusting that doctor and may even become more critical of their care in future cases.

Mending this internal division and presenting patients, family, and coworkers alike with a unified front can help create a culture of clear communication within your team and the greater facility.

Doctors who feel trusted and respected by the nursing staff are more likely to communicate clearly, especially during the critical and chaotic moments that demand that sort of clarity. The same is true for nurses who feel respected and valued in their teams. 

Sometimes something as simple as reserving your dissent for a moment away from the patient—though moments like this can be hard to find—or expressing your trust in the doctor’s abilities in front of others can help build the image of a unified team. At the same time, these trust-building actions can help to create a healthy work environment, allowing you to speak up when you see something without the doctor feeling they’re being personally attacked. 

For the Patient’s Sake

Creating better communication with doctors is an eternal game of give-and-take. 

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You and the doctors you work with are often overworked within an extremely stressful environment. Tempers flare, and the imbalance of power within most medical practice hierarchies means that nurses often come out of these confrontations hurt and ignored. And in time, this makes clear communication harder and harder.

Developing empathy, drawing clear boundaries for acceptable behavior, and having the courage to speak up when you see something—even in the face of potential consequences—can all contribute to more equitable and healthy communication.

When all is said and done, you and the doctors you work with are both in healthcare for one reason: helping patients. And building better communication is the fastest way to do that.

At Nursa, we create clear and actionable content to help nurses build a more sustainable workplace. For more articles, take a look at our per diem nursing blog.

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