Soulful gazing contests, power struggles masking intense attraction, trysts in the supply closet... All of these happen between doctors and nurses in fictional settings, from "Scrubs" to "Days of Our Lives" and the Spanish prime-time "Hospital Central."
But are those doctor-nurse romances happening on your ward? Not that prominently, and not the same way these relationships are romanticized on screen, according to anecdotal evidence and medical organizations.
For one thing, some of the meet-cute and hookup on-the-clock television plot twists aren't plausible for real-life medical professionals, Nurse.org pointed out. “Nurses rarely sneak off to on-call rooms in the middle of a shift. In fact, hospital call rooms have very small, squeaky beds and very thin walls!" it explained.
Also worth noting is that there are only a few movies and television shows from this century in the Top 30 from IMDb's list of "Top movies with doctor-nurse relationships," so the idea is fading a bit even at fictional “General Hospitals.”
Scrubs Magazine went so far as to call nurses dating doctors "a myth," painting a no-win outcome for nurses involved. "Yes, nurses and doctors do date each other, but not nearly on the scale that Hollywood would have you believe," it said. "Nurses date nurses, nurses date EMTs, nurses date cafeteria personnel, nurses date custodial staff. Somehow, though, when nurses do date doctors, that romance is susceptible to more intense scrutiny than other relationships."
But there's no denying that nurses and doctors do develop romantic attachments and sometimes even marry. As summed up by a medical student with the username wanderingorion on the Student Doctor Network forum, the reasons doctors and nurses hook up is not at all insidious and benefits both parties. "I'm married to a nurse," he said. "Although, we were dating long before she became one. I think that the lifestyles mesh well, and it helps to have someone who will understand what you're going through while you're in school and in your career. Also, you literally work with nurses each day, and the field is largely female. Pairing off is bound to happen."
And as recently as 2016, Adam Pearce and Dorothy Gambrell found that plenty of doctors and nurses were still getting married to one another. Interestingly, female doctors were far more likely to marry their high-earning peers, while male doctors were more willing to marry someone who made less. "High-earning women (doctors, lawyers) tend to pair up with their economic equals, while middle- and lower-tier women often marry up. In other words, female CEOs tend to marry other CEOs; male CEOs are OK marrying their secretaries," a chart based on the data crunching concluded.
The sheer numbers of nurses supports the doctor-nurse marriage equation in the medical world. There were about 3.6 million registered nursing jobs in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, outnumbering the 756,800 physicians and surgeons by more than four to one. Between that statistic, more women than ever becoming MDs, an increase in same-sex relationships and marriages and males now making up around 9% of the nurse workforce, there's a lot more opportunity for lower-earning nurses to pair up with higher-earning doctors.
At the same time, more nurses are reaching higher earning levels themselves as nurse anesthetists and nurse practitioners, which makes them more likely to marry fellow high earners, some of them doctors. These statistics helped to pave the way for additional related discoveries by Gambrell and Pearce, according to coverage of the Gambrell and Pearce study done by Business Insider and Becker's Hospital Review.
- Female physicians and surgeons are most likely to marry male or female physicians and surgeons.
- Male physicians and surgeons are most likely to marry female physicians and surgeons or male registered nurses.
- Female registered nurses are most likely to marry male managers or female registered nurses.
- Male registered nurses are most likely to marry female or male registered nurses.
- Nurse practitioners and midwives are most likely to marry miscellaneous managers, physicians and surgeons.
- Nurse anesthetists are most likely to marry physicians and surgeons, retail sales people and registered nurses.
Should you date a doctor, or not?
Some who have "been there, done that" or witnessed hospital romances first-hand take a pretty dim view of doctor-nurse romances. "Doctors and nurses definitely do hook up," according to Alice Tobin's August 2019 anecdotal evidence on Quora. "I have known a few MD/RN marriages, but I know of more situations like this: Medical student or resident moves in with a nurse- in the nurse's apartment. The nurse pays the rent, keeps the house, buys/prepares the meal, does the laundry for both and continues to work full time. This goes on for years."
According to Tobin, a nurse is often "convinced" wedding bells will peal when his or her honey's residency is complete. "But something happens," she added. "The resident takes their month's vacation to see the family. They return four weeks later tan, rested and ready with the announcement that they are now engaged to someone they knew in college or camp or from the family of their parents' friends...the residents who I knew who did this were really nice guys, but really lousy boyfriends."
Gollum 1985 also viewed the nurse-doctor relationship as a negative, but from the perspective of his medical school buddies being "snatched up" by nurses. "At my undergrad one of my professors told me that he has heard nursing students say they just go into nursing school to find and marry a doctor," he wrote on Student Doctor Network.
According to Working Nurse, "Breakups can be even worse. Acute care settings are stressful enough without coworkers taking out their relationship squabbles on everyone else in the unit! Romantic overtures on the job also run the risk of sexual harassment complaints."
Nurse.org was even more cautious, creating a soft-spoken but grim list of "six reasons nurses shouldn't date doctors” in 2017. "You get the looks, gossip, and questions" and "it's impossible to leave work at work" were two of its top reasons nurses might want to steer clear of MD-RN/LPN romance.
If you can't resist, or if you see more benefits to dating a doctor than drawbacks, be very, very careful. “It’s important to keep it out of the hospital, or wherever you work,” Sarah Dolloff, a registered charge nurse in Miramar Beach, Florida, told Scrubs Mag. “People do gossip...they’ll talk about who they saw together and stuff like that. That’s why you want to make sure you act professionally at all times at work.”
Even the AMA Journal of Ethics has concluded that zero-tolerance for workplace romance isn't feasible. In a 2010 commentary based on a fictional scenario where "Healer Hospital" banned all inter-staff dating and romantic relationships of any kind among hospital personnel, real-life medical doctor Lisa K. Cannada concluded that consensual relationships should be allowed, including those between nurses and doctors. "Consensual relationships should be allowed, but written policies against sexual harassment and discrimination must be in place and available to all employees, with methods for reporting and procedures for handling complaints clearly spelled out," she concluded.
"Zero-tolerance is not necessary where and when adults understand what they are getting into, have seen the persons they are involved with under conditions of extreme duress, and are attracted to those individuals. Such experiences can be the basis for a stronger relationship, and it is difficult to hide such a relationship, especially when one is overworked and stressed."
Long before you succumb to that longing gaze or start checking for a wedding band when you see your crush at a co-worker hangout, get familiar with your employee handbook, SM cautioned. "Always make sure you’re cool with your organization’s policy regarding workplace dating. Most nurses don’t report to doctors, but if there’s any supervisory role between you and your honey, you may be violating a rule regarding supervisors dating subordinates."
And amidst an attraction so strong you can't deny it, draw back enough to be the practical voice from the outset, SM advised. "Be clear up front that no matter how the relationship works out, you want to protect your career. Make sure that viewpoint is heard and respected before moving forward, or you could be heading for real heartbreak—both personally and professionally."
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