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What's in a Name? New Rules for Doctor-Patient Introductions
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Dear Mr. Manners:I have an advanced degree, not unlike my doctor, who routinely calls me by my first name. I think it's disrespectful. How should a physician address a patient? And vice versa? Is it okay for me to call him "Howard" if he's calling me "Stan?"– Anonymous
A: Your question sure stirred up a lot of heat on my Facebook page when I asked folks what they thought about doctor-patient introductions. Some were annoyed by your proposal, like the fellow who commented, “Disrespectful"? To be called by your [first] name? Oy.” Others, like this mom, backed you strongly: “I think doctors should always address a patient by their last name unless a patient lets them know it's ok to use the first.”
I also asked some doctors what they thought and I agree with Dr. Brant Inman, vice chief of urology at Duke Medicine, who said: “I think each doctor-patient relationship is different, and some social intelligence is required for establishing what should be normal for each relationship.” In other words, both docs and patients need to factor in age, gender, and yes, “advanced degrees.”
That being said, here’s a primer for doctors (and then patients):
- Ask first:When meeting new patients, ask them how they prefer to be addressed and note it in the chart. But don’t just play lip service to the idea, as this woman’s practitioner did: “I had a doctor who asked me what I want to be called. I said I'd like to be called Ms. May. She said, ‘Okay Miriam.’ Wow, what a lack of respect.” If someone has a nickname or other name and prefers that, use that and jot it down, too. (For instance, my husband’s legal first name is Vernon but he goes by Jim — his middle name— which is what his doctor calls him, as per his request.)
- Use an honorific when you’re not sure:Didn’t have time to ask? Don't see the information in the chart? Then err on the side of respect and use “Mr.” or “Ms.” If you know that your patient is a “Dr.” or “Reverend,” that’s what you should call him or her. Dr. Olivia Perlmutt, who specializes in family medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, explained that she calls all her patients “Mr.” or “Ms.” and that for her younger patients, “it gives them a degree of respect that I think they deserve for coming to the medical system.” Right on, doctor!
- Don’t use nicknames:Perhaps it’s a generational thing, so this is less and less of a problem, but pet names are for spouses and family.
- Be consistent, regardless of gender:Use the same rules for both male and female patients. I’ve known women friends who say their doctors call them by their first names but use “Mr.” for their husbands.
The patient primer:
- Introduce yourself:After your doctor greets you, don’t be shy about saying, for instance, “I’m Martin Cruz” but I prefer to be called “Martin” or “Mr. Cruz.” If you were addressed by a name you don’t like, nip it in the bud the first time with a polite correction, “I’d prefer that you call me….”
- Follow your doc’s lead:If she introduced herself as “Dr. Wang,” well then out of respect call her “Dr. Wang.” If she’s called you “Martin,” don’t just call her “Amy.” Dr. Ken Redcross, a New York City-based internist, told me that “whenever I am addressed by my first name I feel uncomfortable and almost as if I am viewed as more of an assistant than the doctor.”
- Don’t patronize female physicians:The parents of a friend of mine are both doctors in the same practice and she says it infuriates her mom when patients call her “Mary” or “Dr. Mary” without thinking, while they almost always refer to her dad as “Dr. Liebowitz.” This is a clear sign of disrespect and gender bias.
In the end, the best way to deal with this question -- whether you’re the doctor or the patient -- is to ask yourself: What’s most respectful? If you answer that honestly, you really can’t go wrong.
What's been your experience in the doctor-patient "name game?"
Every Thursday,Steven Petrow, the author of five etiquette books, and the forthcoming “Mind Your Digital Manners,” addresses questions about medical manners.
Send your question to.
Follow him on Facebook:www.facebook.com/stevenpetrow
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