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How to Build Healthy Relationships with Nursing Staff

8 Tips for Doctors

In doctor-nurse interactions, doctors wear the pants…or rather, the lab coats. Doctors often set the tone for both individual interactions and team dynamics at large, and nurses and other medical professionals look to them for cues on how they should behave. If you’re a doctor looking to improve your communication with nurses and build healthy working relationships with them, here are eight strategies to follow:

  • Follow the Golden Rule.

You’ve heard it a million times—and yet people still don’t follow it. If you have trouble acting like nurses are your equal, ask yourself how you’d like to be treated at work. Would you want to be talked down to or belittled? Yelled at and bullied? It happens more than you’d think. Thirty-eight percent of nurses report being verbally harassed or bullied by physicians, treatment that doctors certainly would not put up with coming from a nurse. Rather than perpetuating this cycle of bullying, treat nurses with the respect and courtesy you’d like. You don’t have to be friendly or warm, but basic human decency isn’t too much to ask.

  • Remember that you have shared goals.

Nurses, doctors and other medical professionals have one primary goal: to help patients. Even when you’re clashing with someone else at work because of personality differences, keeping this shared goal in mind can help you reorient and focus on the important things. Indeed, doctor-nurse conflicts (just like any conflict in the workplace) can actually interfere with patient safety and well-being. To stop this from happening, stay focused on your ultimate goals and try to put your negative personal feelings aside for the good of patients.

  • Ask for their opinions.

Some doctors feel like asking nurses or other non-doctors for their input compromises their authority or makes them seem less credible. However, no one (even doctors) are omnipotent, and crowdsourcing knowledge from your entire team can compensate for any single person’s oversight. Asking others for their opinions shows that you value their contributions and think that they’re important members of the team. In time, nurses may even begin offering their opinions at the appropriate times without being asked. But if they’re used to being ignored or belittled, you’ll probably have to solicit their thoughts a little more at the beginning until they warm up.

  • Set an example.

Sometimes, you have to be the one to go first and be a role model for the rest of the team. As a doctor, you’re probably in some position of authority, which means that people will be looking to you to set the tone for your interactions. They’ll take their cues from you, so if they see you treating others with respect and practicing open communication, they’ll probably start to do the same. On the other hand, if you constantly snap at others or refuse to answer questions, those negative habits will bleed into the rest of the team’s behavior.

  • Practice effective communication.

Beyond professional respect, openness and collaboration are key to effective communication between doctors and nurses. Sometimes the barriers have nothing to do with the speaker’s attitude. Language and jargon barriers and even finding a quiet place to talk can hinder communication, so watch out for these obstacles and try to overcome them when possible. Many nurses are unsure about when to interrupt a physician with patient findings or what to report, so coaching them on how and when to communicate will also improve your interactions over time.

  • See nurses as people.

Just because doctors wear white coats and nurses wear scrubs doesn’t make them different people. Both groups get frustrated, exhausted and burned out on the clock. They’re not unfeeling machines who simply execute tasks without question for 12 hours at a time—but sometimes doctors can treat nurses this way. A nurse’s profession is an important component of his or her identity, but it’s not the only part. Nurses are far more than what they do at the hospital. Like doctors, nurses have thoughts, feelings and personal lives behind their work and remembering this will help you treat them like the fellow humans they are.

  • Look out for attribution error.

Fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias that many of us fall for. Under fundamental attribution error, we tend to attribute our own negative behaviors to situational factors and others’ negative behaviors to their characters. So, if you’re a few minutes late, it’s because you overslept this once—but if a nurse is late, it’s because they’re lazy and bad at time management. Now, sometimes there will be a chronic pattern of behavior that needs to be addressed, but in many cases, the mistakes that you attribute to character defects are actually due to one-time situational factors. When it comes to making excuses, try to be as charitable towards others as you are to yourself.

  • Use mistakes as teaching moments.

No one likes to be dressed down in front of colleagues and no one learns from an error if all you do is scream at them rather than explaining what went wrong and why. When a nurse makes a mistake, use it as a teaching moment to explore what went wrong and what can be done better next time. Taking responsibility is important, but try not to be overly accusatory or assign blame where it doesn’t belong. After all, if the whole team doesn’t learn how to correct the error, chances are greater that it will happen again.

Building healthy professional relationships takes work no matter what, and it can be especially difficult for doctors and nurses given the sometimes-toxic tension that’s built up between the two groups. But following best practices such as the eight tips listed here will help you start creating those good relationships with nurses, starting today.

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