Health care teams are becoming increasingly diverse in today's world of medicine, comprising many different providers with distinct roles. Anyone interested in pursuing a career in health care has to decide which of these roles most distinctly matches their interests and aspirations.
Many students aspiring to enter health care deliberate between going to medical school and nursing school. While these two fields can be similar in some respects, they are very different in other respects. If you are debating between a career in medicine and nursing, it is important to carefully consider both so that you can arrive at a well-informed decision.
Considering a few factors can help you make a better decision about which of these two career paths is better for you:
Nurses and doctors are both critically vital to a well-functioning health care team. The primary role of the physician is to ascertain what problem a patient may have and to make decisions about treatments for management of the patient's condition.
Nurses implement the care plan that physicians come up with. This may include preparing patients for diagnostic tests or administering medicines.
The line between the two roles is blurred with advanced practice nurses, who have the credentials and training to diagnose patients and make treatment decisions. For example, nurse practitioners can examine patients, order tests and prescribe medications to treat various conditions.
Doctors and nurses both interact with patients. However, the extent and nature of their interactions may vary.
Nurses spend more time at the bedside with patients and as a result have a greater opportunity to talk to patients and family members. Students who choose to enter the nursing profession often cite this as a factor motivating them to go into nursing.
Physicians, being involved in the higher-level decision-making about care, may spend less time at the bedside and more time behind the scenes, monitoring a patient's progress and adjusting the treatment plan accordingly.
In some respects, nurses serve as the liaison between the patient and doctor. They execute the plan put in place by doctors and may relay the doctor's decisions to the patient. They also communicate concerns voiced by a patient to the physician.
In many settings, nurses also play a key role in educating patients and members of the community on various health issues, which provides a unique opportunity to connect with others.
Medical training involves four years of undergraduate education that leads to a bachelor's degree followed by four years of medical school. After finishing med school, doctors must spend at least three years, but often longer, training in a specialty of their choice such as family practice or surgery. Though the process is lengthy, doctors in specialty training are paid a salary and do not have to pay tuition.
Much of the early training in med school involves in-depth exploration of the basic biomedical sciences such as physiology and pharmacology as they relate to disease and its treatments. The latter half of medical school is spent learning clinical medical science. This involves learning about conditions of different diseases, thoroughly understanding how to diagnose these conditions and learning about the various treatment options.
Aspiring nurses, on the other hand, can become a registered nurse by first obtaining an associate's degree in nursing or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from an accredited program, either of which is a qualification to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX, and become a registered nurse.
Students who complete a bachelor's degree in a field other than nursing can obtain a second bachelor's degree via an accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, for example, or enroll in an entry-level master's program in nursing, which would allow them to subsequently apply for their registered nurse license. Those wishing to become nurse practitioners or get involved in teaching may continue by gaining further training at the master's or doctoral level.
There is sometimes a misconception among students that opportunities for leadership or research are limited in nursing. This is not true at all. Many nurses go on to obtain doctoral degrees and enter academic institutions where they can teach and be involved in research. Others take on high-level leadership roles at hospitals, where they work on improving patient care through various initiatives.
For example, nurses may lead hospital-level initiatives to improve quality of care or be involved in efforts to improve patient safety. With ongoing health care reform and new models of care delivery across the U.S., the role of nurses is likely to further expand and allow them to take on new and dynamic roles in health care.
For anyone choosing between a career in nursing and medicine, it's important to remember that both careers can be immensely rewarding. The best way to determine which career is a better fit for you is by immersing yourself in each field, observing the roles of both types of providers, and talking to nurses and doctors to learn about their work.