Should Patients Call You by Your First Name?

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN


December 26, 2018

In This Article

Establishing Boundaries

Anne Marie Valinoti, MD, a New Jersey-based internist, expressed some misgivings about a patient calling her by her first name, and that it's "one thing I'm still getting used to." Writing in the New York Times, Dr Valinoti pointed out that there "seems to be a void in this area of etiquette: How does one address one's physician?"[1]

In her case, she found that it was almost always an older male patient who took it upon himself to use her first name, and usually in a friendly, offhand manner. "It might seem natural if I have had a long-term 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," she wrote. "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?"

In a letter to the editor of Emergency Medicine News, Robert D. Greene, MD, of Redding, Connecticut, emphasized that a doctor/patient relationship is not a personal relationship. "That does not imply one cannot give empathy, compassion, and understanding," he said. "In fact, it is a requirement of the relationship."[2]

But when Dr Greene leaves the office, "[I'm] not going to play golf or go to dinner with my patients as part of my treatment plan. In fact, we often have to remove ourselves from that level of connection to make objective and difficult decisions. That is why doctors should not treat their friends."

On a Medscape blog, Gary Stadtmauer, MD, who maintains a private practice in New York City in allergy and immunology, finds that it "happens every now and then and it always takes me by surprise" that a patient calls him by his first name.[3]

"I do not know exactly why some patients do this," he wrote. "Any title commands a certain degree of respect but also is a recognition on some level that the parties are not entirely equal. Perhaps that is an uncomfortable situation for some people. Or maybe they were on a first-name basis with another doctor and they are more at ease with physicians on a first-name basis. There are probably more reasons."

One physician reader, however, commented that doctors should "get over it" and that "this is the 21st century, and patients count also. If my patients want to refer to me by my first name and it makes them comfortable, I am happy to put them at ease."


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