The Privilege of Physicians

A white male physician in a tie and white coat stands with his arms crossed, wearing a stethoscope.

Recently, I participated in a nursing focus group. A woman doing her doctoral dissertation on the lived experiences of healthcare professionals came to my Doctor of Nursing Practice class to hear the Nursing perspective.

We had a conversation about why we became nurses and how we chose our specialties. When the facilitator asked about our frustrations with the profession, hands shot into the air.


“Anything not explicitly under the purview of another profession becomes the nurse’s responsibility. We’re expected to do it all!”

“Hospital leadership wants us to do more and more with less and less resources.” 

“We take the brunt of all the patient and family frustrations - even with things we can’t control.”

“As a nurse, I'm not treated with half the respect a physician receives.” 

This last one struck a chord. In this professional setting, nurses expressed feeling devalued. It was a common sentiment. 

Doctoral students - many of whom have been in nursing for 10+ years - don’t complain. This is not a group of low motivated, entitled grumblers who use complaining as a means to avoid work. 


These nurses are researching and producing doctoral-level academic work, while at the same time, fulfilling their obligations at the hospital. These nurses don’t complain. They assess.

One nurse brought up the signals we receive merely from the hospital’s physical environment. In his facility, physicians have a lounge with couches, flat screen televisions, and a fridge stocked with free food. Nurses share a crowded break room with nursing support staff. There is a table with chairs, a packed-to-the-gills-with-lunchboxes fridge and a single, slow microwave.

Another classmate is a Quality Director for a hospital system. Her role involves attending Root Cause Analysis investigations held after a medical error or sentinel event occurs. She shared that she finds herself constantly defending the actions of nurses during these investigations. They are typically the first to be blamed. 

More nurses chimed in with stories of rude interactions with physicians. They describe incidences when they were dismissed after they had brought safety concerns to surgeons during a procedure. They describe managers who avoid dealing with problematic Attending Physicians, but quickly terminate nurses who are difficult to work with.

A classmate (Executive Director of a national nursing organization) expressed frustration in a different area: “Nurses are the ones going to rallies and testifying to Congress. We show up. But then Press time comes and all the quotes are from physicians. We are invisible.” 

Another nurse contributed this: “This is not a Nurse vs Physician issue. Physicians and nurses both suffer.” He went on to mention physicians' long hours at work with little sleep, the stress of the job, and the abuse new doctors face during residency.

The discussion then moved on to bullying in healthcare and nurses’ perpetuation of unhealthy hazing rituals.

But I stayed pondering the Nurse vs Physician dynamic that exists in healthcare.

Physicians don’t have it easy. But they do work in a position of privilege, relative to nurses. 

Physicians have it hard. But that does not justify nurses being the symptom bearers of the whole system.

Physicians have it hard. Nurses have it hard. Nursing assistants have it hard. Techs have it hard. Administrators have it hard. But physicians have the privilege.

What if we said, “Men have problems too, so women shouldn’t complain about systemic sexism.”  Or, “Middle class and wealthy people have problems too, so people living in poverty shouldn’t challenge the social hi