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Knowing When to Call the Doctor

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Nurse looking at chart and making phone call

Okay, here is a glimpse at my dark side.

Once when I was an internal medicine/pediatric resident, I had a conversation with an attending physician, and I felt that he was speaking to me inappropriately. The conversation got heated, with a little anger on both sides.

I had to tell the attending physician to go shove it. (Well, not literally, but I let him know that I was not there for him to abuse.) As you might imagine, he didn’t like what I said.

I didn’t feel like I had a lot to lose at the time, either. I was in my last year of residency, and I had already gotten great letters of recommendation. I felt like I had to stand up for myself.

Some physicians have a reputation for being harsh, but I have generally had positive experiences with most people—including my physician colleagues.

At times I have been told that I am a nice guy, and occasionally that has bothered me. I mean, I don’t see myself as a pushover; if anything, I am a strong advocate for my patients, and I support the wellness team.

I think that many of us have angst when we speak with certain people on the phone or in person. The reasons include lack of preparation for the discussion, or the fact that the person we are speaking with might have a few issues surrounding what is being discussed.

Ask yourself this. At 2 a.m. when you need help, who do you want to answer the phone: a nice person or a mean one? Now, I know that people will have many different thoughts around this question. The bottom line is that you want the person who is going to help you. And, by the way, you wouldn’t mind if that person showed some manners.

I have spoken with hundreds of nurses over the course of my career.

Sometimes I have gotten conditioned responses from nurses. I figured this out when a nurse with 20-plus years of experience told me that some nurses are on guard because they have had negative interactions with physicians. Of course, this doesn’t paint all physicians the same shade of “surly,” but it’s important to keep this in mind.

Many nurses have asked me, “What should I say to a doctor when I make a call?” or “What do doctors want to hear when I am speaking to them?”

There is no one answer for all physicians, and usually these questions are framed around bad experiences that nurses have had when calling a doctor. So, I don’t have a magical answer. But if I personally had to answer these questions, I would explain what I  appreciate:

  1. I would like a nurse to have the most current vitals when I am called about hypotension, for example. (Occasionally I have experienced cases in which a low blood pressure that is quoted was taken an hour or more prior.)

  2. I don’t like it when a nurse says that she/he is sorry about calling or bothering me. (I’ll discuss this in another blog.)

Overall, thinking through what to say before you contact a physician on call is important for you and for him/her.

Also, perhaps the “golden rule”—treating others as you would like to be treated, and speaking with others as you would like to be spoken to—would serve both nurses and doctors well.

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