A primer on addressing patients

The lyrics to Janet Jackson’s song, Nasty, includes this line, “No, my first name ain’t baby, it’s Janet. Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.” Miss Jackson doesn’t like being called, “baby,” and neither do a lot of patients.

Many healthcare professionals call patients by nicknames, such as, “honey” and “sweetie.” I believe these are terms of endearment and in most cases meant with genuine warm feelings toward patients. However, from interviewing hundreds of patients, I discovered many do not like these nicknames and some people are very offended. One patient I interviewed was very angry at her doctor (who was ten years her junior).  He called her, “young lady.” She found this very disrespectful.  (This puzzled me since I am thrilled when people call me, “young man.”  While driving to the venue of a workshop, I stopped in a store to get an iced tea and the lady who gave me the drink said, “Here is your iced tea, young man.” I was ecstatic and stated, “Thank you for calling me young man.”  She then stated, “I used to work in a retirement community. We called all the old guys young men.” My joy was short lived!)

Ask patients their preferred names.  Every patient should be asked what name they would like used when addressed. Once this name is identified, every healthcare professional working with this patient should use that name. In one hospital, I worked with a patient whose full first name was, “Patricia.” However she wanted everyone to call her, “Pat.”  She wrote on her room’s white board, “Call me Pat.”  Still, healthcare professionals walked in and called her “Patricia” or “Mrs. Smith” (not her actual last name).  She found this behavior very irritating.  The “preferred name” should be listed on all intake forms. While preparing for a medical procedure, a nurse asked me how I prefer being addressed. I thought to myself, “Great question!” I said, “You can call me by my family nickname, ‘Eddie.’”  She looked at me silently for a moment and then said, “I will call you Edward.”  What reason did she ask what I prefer if she was going to call me what she wanted anyway?

When in doubt, go formal.  If you are unsure of what to call patients, you are always safer going formal, such as, “Hello Mr. Smith.”  Address patients in this way, unless they request otherwise. This is especially true of elderly patients.  I interviewed a patient’s family member who told me that when her elderly mother was in the hospital, healthcare professionals would constantly use her first name (e.g., “Mary, we need to get some blood from you.”).  Her mother was a very prim and proper lady, who did not take kindly to people younger than her calling her by her first name. At the University of California, Los Angeles, medical students are taught to introduce themselves by first and last names and to address the patient by Mr./Ms. followed by the last name. “We tell them it’s better to err on the side of formality,” says Dr. Susan Stangl, an associate professor of family medicine and chair of UCLA’s Doctoring 1 course for medical students.

Check titles. Carefully check to see if the patient has a title based on factors such as degree (e.g., Ph.D.) or religious affiliation (e.g., Sister). Patients will understand if you don’t know their title, but if you add the title, this shows you exceeded expectations, which boost the patient experience. Some people prefer the doctor title with their first name.  For example, a friend of mine, who is a Ph.D. psychologist, prefers to be called, “Dr. Jo.”

Do not give people nicknames. In addition to the “honey/sweetie” type nicknames, there are others we need to be aware of that could create patient frustration. If a person tells you their preferred name is “William,” that does not necessarily mean they like being called, “Will.”  Growing up, we had a family friend named, “Susan.” She made it very clear she did not like being called, “Sue.”  As a clinician, if you called her “Sue,” you would immediately damage the relationship.

Ask about pronunciation. If you are seeing a patient for the first time and are unsure of the pronunciation of their name, ask before you attempt to pronounce the name.  This will avoid the patient awkwardly telling you, “My last name is actually pronounced …” Getting the name right shows courtesy and respect for the patient. If you really want to earn some extra points from a patient with a difficult-to-pronounce name, check with a colleague or administrative professional in your office or organization; they may know the correct pronunciation and can give you the scoop. Your patient will be thrilled when you walk in and correctly pronounce their name. Also, do not make assumptions about first names. I met a healthcare professional whose first name was spelled “D-A-N-A,” however her first name was pronounced like the name, “Donna.” Also, consider the pronunciation of the first names of these two theatrical performers: Bette Midler (pronounced like the word “bet”) and Bette Davis (pronounced like the name, “Betty”).

Sensitively inquire about name changes. Be sure names are updated, as in the case of marriages/divorces or step children.  To avoid any awkward moments ask about “life changes.” You may want to say, “We are updating our records, have there been any name changes?”  This is a friendly way to open the discussion of the subject.

Check family member names.  The same rules apply to family members.  The family members are often put in secondary roles, however, they have a great influence over the patient, so it is important they also have an outstanding experience. We can improve the experience by correctly addressing them. When working with family members, determine their preferred names and record those in the chart.  Let’s say your patient has a daughter named. “Katherine Jones,” but she prefers the name, “Kathy.”  If you address the daughter by the name, “Kathy,” that is an indication that you exceeded expectations by taking the time to learn her preferred name. Once again, a boost in patient and family satisfaction levels.

Our names represent the essence of who we are and for that reason it is vitally important that we correctly address patients and their family members.

Edward Leigh is founder and director, Center for Healthcare Communication.

View 24 Comments >

Most Popular

✓ Join 150,000+ subscribers
✓ Get KevinMD's most popular stories