Welcome to the first installment of my ongoing educational series that will be providing accurate healthcare information that I believe will be useful for writers. I thought I would start with a brief overview of people you generally see on an unit, because I know that alone can be daunting and confusing. This list is not all-inclusive by any means, but contains general information about personnel that are most often walking in and out of a patient’s room.
Doctor (MD, DO)
What they look like: Docs often wear one of two things: scrubs (color depends on specialty or location) or business casual underneath a lab coat. The choice is usually personal preference, but usually the docs in scrubs work more directly with patient care.
Specialties: Docs come in as many flavors as you can imagine, and this goes deeper than the Scrubs separation of medical versus surgical. Surgeons can be specialized in areas like cardiac surgeries, like coronary artery bypass grafts (CABG), or orthopedics, meaning fixing broken bones. Medicine can be splint down into anything from infectious disease to obstetrics to family medicine.
Scope of practice: The biggest thing that sets doctors apart is their ability to prescribe treatments and diagnose medical conditions, so therefore they generally direct plans of care for patients. They also perform more complicated bedside procedures, such as placing a central venous line or inserting a chest tube.
Nurse Practitioner (NP)
What they look like: Like docs, NPs wear either scrubs or a lab coat depending on their area.
Specialties: Many NPs work in a family practice or clinic setting as a cheaper alternative to doctors. There is an increase in acute care NPs who work in hospital units.
Scope of practice: This actually varies state to state, going from independent practicing for NPs to the requirement of needing to work under a doctor. NPs can write meds and diagnose, but sometimes their prescriptions need to be cosigned by a doctor.
Registered Nurse (RN)
What they look like: Pretty much all nurses wear scrubs. Some hospitals have color requirements (usually navy), others allow nurses to wear whatever color or pattern they want.
Specialties: Many nurses just hold their basic RN licensure, but some nurses can get specialty certificates for things like wound care or diabetes education or critical care. Advanced degree nurses, who have earned a master’s degree or higher can, specialize in things like healthcare administration and management.
Scope of practice: Nurses tend to provide the bulk of patient care, ranging from medication administration to daily assessments. The major role of nurses is to provide patient advocacy through plan of care decisions with any member of the healthcare team. Registered nurses are responsible for the administration of blood products.
Patient Care Tech/Nurse’s Aide (PCT)
What they look like: Techs (as they’re most usually called) wear scrubs. If they’re color coordinated, I’ve most often seen a dark red color.
Scope of practice: Techs serve to help patients with their activities of daily living, or ADLs for short, to lighten the load of the nurse. This includes helping with bathroom privileges, assisting with meals, and obtaining vital signs. They’re not allowed to administer any medications and cannot perform any typical of assessment. They can, however, perform simple procedures such as an uncomplicated dressing change or Foley catheter insertion in a stable patient.
Physical Therapist (PT)
What they look like: Most of the PTs I’ve seen wear nice looking workout-style clothes, since they’re working physically with patients.
Scope of practice: They look specifically into the physical rehabilitation of patients. They’re used often for patients with physical injuries that will require assistive devices such as walkers or crutches after discharge, but can be used for any patient.
Occupational Therapist (OT)
What they look like: Some OTs wear workout stuff, others wear business casual, others wear scrubs.
Scope of practice: While PTs work on physical rehab, OTs look at the broader picture, helping patients achieve independence for their ADLs after discharge. This includes things like ensuring proper bathing routines with dressings or splints.
Respiratory Therapist (RT)
What they look like: They usually wear scrubs, and the color I’ve seen is a royal blue color.
Scope of practice: Most RTs work in intensive care settings, since many of those patients are on ventilators and they’re there to monitor patient’s respiratory status related to their ventilator. Some RTs also make rounds to lower acuity units to administer respiratory medicines such as inhalers.
Social Worker (LSW, LCSW)
What they look like: In a hospital setting, they can wear a lab coat over business casual or just business casual.
Scope of practice: Social workers coordinate services for patients. Sometimes they have extra clinical training to perform counseling, but mostly social workers in a hospital are providing resources from in-house consultations to outside programs like Meals on Wheels or home health care.
You tell me: Did I forget anyone?? Any specialty you’re wondering whether it exists or would be useful in a hospital setting?
Mark your calendars! One week from today (September 2) I will be hosting a medical AMA over on r/YAwriters starting at approximately noon EST, so get your questions ready! And stay tuned for more installments of healthcare knowledge.