What do you call your doctor?

7 Jan

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

Physician Dr. Anne Marie Valinoti, writing in the New York Times, explored the subject of exam room etiquette between doctor and patient, and specifically how they address each other.

“Since my early career, I have always been addressed as ‘Dr. Valinoti’. Freshly minted MDs, some as young as 25, get a title of respect – while seasoned nurses in the hospital are just Betty, Kaye or Nancy.

“I remembered the absurdity of this situation when, as a young intern, I was addressing critical care nurses with decades of experience by their first names, while they deferentially called me ‘Doctor.’  These were women who had started their careers when I was still playing with Barbie dolls, yet where were their professional titles?

“Like most things in medical training, I got used to it, and it became second nature.

“One thing I am still getting used to, though, is when patients call me by my first name. There seems to be a void in this area of etiquette: How does one address one’s physician?

“It is almost always an older patient who will use my first name, in a friendly, offhand way. And, I have observed, these patients are usually men.

“It might seem natural if I have had a longterm relationship with these people, caring for them over the years, but often these patients seem to make a decision at the outset to be on a first-name basis with me. I wonder about these people. Are they trying to be chummy? Is it a power thing, making them feel less vulnerable while they sit half naked on the exam table? Do they just call everyone by their first names?”

When I was a little girl, such questions would rarely need to be asked, because few patients would have even dreamed of calling their doctor by their first name. In fact, I can’t even remember Dr. Zaritsky’s first name – and he was our family doctor for decades.

A physician back then was to be addressed only as “Doctor” (or possibly, “Your Holiness”). The only exception to this rule might have been if the doctor were part of the patient’s social circle, fairly common in smaller communities, but even then the doc’s first name would likely be elevated to “Dr. Bill”.

Two years ago, the journal Archives of Internal Medicine reported a study of patients’ own preferences of exam room etiquette vs. the actual reality as captured on videotape during the study.  Researchers from Northwest University’s school of medicine interviewed patients and found that:

  • just over 78% of patients wanted doctors to shake their hands, while about 18% did not (this study was done prior to the H1N1 flu pandemic scare and subsequent warnings to limit public handshakes)
  • slightly more than half of patients preferred that their first names be used during interactions (“Hello, Carolyn”)
  • about 17% preferred  that the doctor use the patient’s last name (“Hello, Mrs. Thomas”)
  • just over 56% of patients wanted doctors to introduce themselves by using just first and last names (“I’m Anne Marie Valinoti”); 32.5% wanted doctors to use just their last name (“I’m Dr. Valinoti”);  and only about 7% wanted doctors to use just their first name (“I’m Anne Marie”)

When researchers videotaped new patient visits with doctors, they found that:

  • doctors and patients shook hands about 83% of the time
  • in 50.4% of visits, doctors did not mention patients’ names at all
  • doctors used their own first and last names when introducing themselves in 58.5% of the meetings
  • doctors did not introduce themselves at all to new patients in about 11% of the visits (This number, by the way, should be ZERO unless the doctor has a recognized personality disorder, in which case, he/she should not be practicing medicine).

Dr. Valinoti reminds us of another recent study reported in the British Medical Journal on just this subject that also looked at a patient’s age as a determining factor.

“Interestingly, most patients surveyed, particularly those younger than 65, preferred that their physicians call them by their first name.”

But most people surveyed preferred not to address their physicians by their first names.

Read the rest of Dr. Valinoti’s essay from the New York Times.

What do you call your doctor?  And what does your doctor call you?

18 Responses to “What do you call your doctor?”

  1. Beth Gainer September 23, 2016 at 7:30 pm #

    Excellent post on a topic I never thought about before. All my doctors introduce themselves by saying, “Hi I’m Doctor Smith….” I call them by their title out of respect. Shaking hands is nice, but not necessary when meeting a doctor. When I was going through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, and I was lucky: nurses and doctors hugged me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas September 24, 2016 at 6:10 am #

      Hello Beth! Isn’t that an interesting difference between your breast cancer hugging vs the formality of ‘regular’ medical encounters? Imagine if all docs/nurses hugged their patients at every visit!

      Like

  2. kerri October 30, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Interesting question. I rarely, if ever, say my doctor’s name TO them. Because I am young, I am always [if referred to at all] called Kerri.

    I refer to my primary care doctor as Dr. [last name]. Since starting seeing my current respirologist [a research doctor], I have met/had calls with many of her colleagues out of practice in an advocacy perspective. One of them only refers to herself by her initials in e-mail because her last name is about a thousand letters long. Thus, I refer to her by her first name when talking to others, but call her by her full name in e-mails [I usually go by how they sign-off, much like I do my profs with PhDs, but initials are less-than-helpful!].

    One such colleague of this doctor, Sally Wenzel from the University of Pittsburgh, all but refuses to be addressed as Dr. Wenzel and goes by Sally — I’ve been corrected many, many times :]. When I met with her informally for coffee when we were both attending a conference, it was all about the first-name basis-ness.

    My local respirologist I call by her first name when speaking to other people–and often catch myself going “C_–Dr. [last name]” to my primary care doctor!–because I am used to addressing her in the context of people like the above doctors in a more social manner. Oops? [I might see if she is okay with me calling her by her first name at the next appointment, seeing this is where some of her colleagues are at!]

    I DO think, though, I feel a better connection with these people if I can address them on a first-name basis. Being a kinesiology major, my faculty is very informal, and all the PhDs are like “Hi, I’m [first name].” and that is that.

    I wonder when, if at any point, the first-name basis between doctors and patients will be used as a standard. I, for one, hope so to make that patient/provider gap a tiny bit smaller.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas October 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

      Hi Kerri – so nice to hear from you again. I wonder if, as Gemma comments below, it would be different if these were male doctors. I think PhDs are a different story, especially in an academic environment where the culture is pretty egalitarian. The doctor-patient relationship is rooted in a deep culture of hierarchy – except for those relationships where one or the other insists on ignoring that status.

      Like

      • kerri October 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

        Good question! Very interesting. I didn’t realize when commenting that this post was two years old — nice to bring some oldies but goodies to the surface again, eh? :]

        Keep in touch! :]

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Gemma December 1, 2010 at 7:17 pm #

    I call my (male) cardiologist Dr. XXX, but I call my GP by her first name. Now I’m wondering if I’d do the same if their genders were reversed?!?! Not sure about that one!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Isaiah Zwiebel April 17, 2010 at 7:39 am #

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    I appear to consent with most of your ideas and opinions and this submit on how to address one’s physician is no different. Entirely.

    Thank you for any wonderful web site. Have a wonderful day.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Granny Annie January 31, 2010 at 9:01 am #

    Our primary care physician is the age of our oldest daughter. I call her Doctor, but my husband insists on calling her Lisa. I am about to get him over that. Now our cardiac care physician is retiring and he has always been “Doctor” to both of us. However, looking at the photo of our new doctor, it is going to be difficult to keep from calling him “Little Timmy”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas January 31, 2010 at 10:13 am #

      Hi Granny Annie – I know what you mean. I’ve worked in a hospital since 2000, and those new doctors look younger and younger each year. I’m often tempted to ask: “Does your mother know you’re practicing medicine?!?!”

      cheers,
      C.

      Like

  6. DDD January 28, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    It should be mutual respect. A patient should always address a physician as Dr.XXX. However, as long as the patient is a relatively mature adult, the physician should not address the patient by first name and instead use Mr/Ms. etc.

    With very few exceptions, unless the doctor already knows me, if he doesn’t address me as Mr. XXX, I will not address the physician with any name and I will probably look for another equivalent one.

    It pisses me off when physicians’ clerical staff address me by my first name. It means they have NO MANNERS!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas January 31, 2010 at 10:16 am #

      Hello DDD – have you mentioned to your doctor’s staff about your preferences? Just a thought….

      cheers,
      C.

      Like

  7. Connie January 24, 2010 at 3:54 am #

    Interesting subject.

    My parents call our family physician “Doctor” and she calls them “Mr” and “Mrs”. She calls me by my first name however, and I call her by her first name.

    This just evolved – I don’t remember when the shift happened between calling her “Doctor” when I was a little girl, to dropping the “Doctor”. Maybe while I was in college.

    In Britain, doctors are apparently referred to as “Mr” or “Miss”, not “Doctor”.

    I love your website – always look forward to each essay. Thanks………

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas January 31, 2010 at 10:15 am #

      Thanks, Connie. I too have heard about the “Mr” and “Ms” thing in the U.K. Wonder if this is still true?

      cheers,
      C.

      Like

      • DrDan May 23, 2010 at 5:21 am #

        Hi Carolyn

        Here in the UK, most physicians are called ‘Dr’ although the basic medical qualification is a Bachelor degree (MB). MD is a higher degree in the UK and only a minority of physicians have it.

        Surgeons who are members or fellows of the royal college of surgeons (MRCS or FRCS) call themselves ‘Mr’ (even if they have an MD) as historically they were not qualified physicians.

        Doesn’t make much sense really…

        Dan

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Deb January 19, 2010 at 8:52 am #

    I call mine “Doctor” and he calls me “Debbie” even though I’ve told him repeatedly that my name is “Deb”, not “Debbie”. It’s like he deliberately attempts to reinforce the adult/child power relationship. Arrrrgh.

    After reading this article, I’m going to start calling him “Frankie”…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Adriana Lykins January 7, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    Great topic on what doctors like to be called – I’m happy I stumbled onto this through my friend’s blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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