Should Patients Call You by Your First Name?

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN


December 26, 2018

In This Article

Comfort With First Names Varies

It is impossible to know how many patients address their physician as "Doctor" or use their first name, given the huge diversity of medical practice and cultural/ethnic differences among physicians and patients. There are also very scant data on the subject, and most of what exists is old.

"I don't think things have changed very much since then," noted Dr Brian McKinstry, a primary care professor in England, who conducted a study on this subject in 1990.[4] Dr McKinstry explained that in his own practice and institution, "many of the doctors use first names with their patients. Some patients do with doctors, but it's a very definite minority."

In his article, Dr McKinstry pointed out that some authors have argued that "using the patient's first name but not the doctor's maintains this unequal relationship, which can be damaging in the long term." Taking it a step further, it has also been suggested that this "induced dependency" inhibits patients' ability to make decisions for themselves and to take responsibility for their health.

Richard Harrigan, MD, a professor of emergency medicine at Temple University Hospital and School of Medicine in Philadelphia, says he prefers to be on a first-name basis with patients. He feels that dropping the title of "Doctor" removes the first barrier to establishing the doctor/patient relationship.

"I begin the conversation with 'Hi, I'm Rich Harrigan; I'm your doctor,' or something to that effect," he explains. "As I leave the room, I close with something to the effect of 'So, my name is Rich; let me know if you need anything/I'll let you know when your tests are back/Do you have any other questions?' That type of thing."

Not surprisingly, this level of informality takes some patients aback, although not all that many. But then, this is the emergency department—where, unlike in primary care or other specialties, there's generally little time to establish a relationship with patients. However, even though Dr Harrigan emphasizes the use of his first name, it varies as to what patients actually end up calling him.

"Many don't call me anything," he says, figuring some may have forgotten his name. "But I feel I've broken down a potential barrier by not introducing myself as 'Dr Harrigan.'"


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