Letters from Maine

Whose nurse is she/he?


I suspect that there is at least one person in your office or on your team whose name is followed by the initials “RN.” How do you refer to that individual? Do you introduce her as “My nurse Louise”? Or do you say “I would like you to meet Lance, who is one of our nurses”? How often do you say “Rachel will be your nurse today”?

Is there really much difference between “my,” “our,” and “your” in this context? I suspect that most of us unconsciously avoid “my.” But, back in the era when solo practitioner owner/operators walked the earth, “my nurse” was a more frequent descriptor. The system was male dominated and hierarchical. And, of course, the doctor was paying the nurse’s salary.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised that you refer to the RN on your care team as “our nurse,” even though you don’t sign his or her paycheck. And I suspect that most nurses would probably not be offended by “our” and view it as an acknowledgment of his or her status as a team member.

However, a recent Ethics Rounds in the September 2017 Pediatrics titled “Physician-Nurse Interactions in Critical Care” has gotten me thinking more about what may seem to be semantic hairsplitting between “our nurse” and “your nurse” (doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-0352). The scenario revolves around a young neonatal ICU nurse in her first clinical position who is criticized by her supervisor for advocating for a young mother by questioning the doctor. A good part of the discussion focuses on the ethical dilemma faced by someone whose training has emphasized her obligation to advocate for her patients suddenly finding herself in a situation in which she sees the doctor’s care plan as flawed or at best inadequate. In this particular case, a more experienced nurse would probably already have acquired strategies and a vocabulary that could minimize or avert the conflict. However, the question still remains: to whom does the nurse in your office or on your team owe her/his primary allegiance?

I hope that you have fostered a professional atmosphere that leaves room in which – as well as a process by which – a nurse can question your management of a patient without fear of retribution. Although it is never easy to have your actions questioned, it is certainly easier when the process takes place in a retrospective review rather than when the issue presents itself in the glare of real time and the nurse feels he must speak up now to advocate for the patient adequately.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.
Dr. William G. Wilkoff
Another less discussed situation occurs when the nurse feels an obligation to protect the physical and mental health of a physician with whom she is working. It may be that the physician has made it very clear that he “must finish” his day by a certain hour so that he can attend his daughter’s soccer playoff game. Or it may be that the nurse perceives that the doctor is teetering on the edge of burnout and worries that adding one more patient to his schedule may precipitate a crisis or at least speed up the process.

When the call comes in from a panicked parent at 4 p.m., pleading to have her sick child seen, how does the nurse balance his commitment to the health of the patients against his concern for the doctor’s well being. Occasionally, I hear a nurse erring on the side of being zealous guardians of the doctor’s free time. However, I sense that, day in and day out, it is the nurse’s obligation to the patient that prevails most of the time. I hope I am correct.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”

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