Nurse Practitioners and Doctors: How They Work Together in Cancer Care

A cancer care team is made up of several health professionals, including doctors and nurse practitioners. So how are these two important components of a care team different, and how do they work together?

There are many different types of doctors that work on a typical cancer care team. At Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, patients are assigned a multidisciplinary team of health care professionals led by a medical oncologist (cancer specialist) or a hematologist (blood disease specialist), who are also senior staff physicians. Pediatric patient teams also include a pediatric oncologist or hematologist.

There are also multiple nurses that a patient will see throughout their treatment, including nurse practitioners. Nurse practitioners are advanced-practice nurses who work collaboratively with doctors to diagnose and treat illness, perform physical exams and discuss results, and educate patients on their diagnosis and treatment.

Nurse practitioners also work with patients to focus on their general health and well-being by encouraging them to have preventive care, including regular check-ups with their primary care physicians and stay up-to-date on vaccines, as well as to eat healthfully and exercise as much as they can. They prescribe various medications to patients, including antibiotics and medications to manage symptoms, and can renew anti-cancer medications after they have been prescribed by an oncologist.

Dana-Farber’s lead nurse practitioner Kimberly Noonan, NP.
Dana-Farber’s lead nurse practitioner Kimberly Noonan, NP.

Doctors — usually medical oncologists — and nurse practitioners often regularly consult one another on a patient’s treatment, and both meet with the patient and the patient’s family, according to Dana-Farber’s lead nurse practitioner Kimberly Noonan, NP, who sees patients in the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center. Noonan and the rest of the center’s team, including research, infusion, and program nurses, also meet regularly to discuss new patient cases and their treatment plans, as well as how patients on clinical trials are progressing.

While the medical oncologist or hematologist leads the team, nurse practitioners and other members of the care team give their input on treatment and other issues affecting the patient. Nurse practitioners can also diagnose certain diseases and problems such as pneumonia and conjunctivitis, and if a patient is suspected to have a second cancer, they will work with physicians to order scans or other procedures to make the appropriate cancer diagnosis.

“Everybody is equally as important and respected on the cancer care team,” Noonan says. “It’s a collaborative, wonderful relationship among all of us.”

In addition to nurses and doctors, members of a patient’s care team may also include clinical social workers, who can provide emotional support and counseling; integrative therapy practitioners, who can help with symptom management; and clinical assistants and research coordinators.

Learn more about cancer care teams from Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.