COMMENTARY

The Optimized Doctor: Say My Name

Jeffrey Benabio, MD, MBA

April 19, 2021

Dr Ben-a-bo?

Nope.

Ben-nabi?

Nope.

Ben-NO-bo?

Also no.

My surname is tricky to pronounce for some people. I sometimes exaggerate to help patients get it right: "Beh-NAAH-bee-oh." Almost daily someone will reply: "Oh, you're Italian!" Well, no actually, my friend Enzo who was born in Sicily and lives in Milan, he's Italian. I'm just a Rhode Islander who knows some Italian words from his grandmother. Most times though, I just answer: 'Yep, I'm Italian." It's faster.

We use names as a shortcut to identify people. In clinic, it can help to find things in common quickly, similar to asking where you're from. (East Coast patients seem to love that I'm from New England and if they're Italian and from New York, well then, we're paisans right from the start.)

However, using names to guess how someone identifies can be risky. In some instances, it could even be seen as microaggressive, particularly if you got it wrong.

Like most of you I'll bet, I'm pretty good at pronouncing names – we practice thousands of times! Other than accepting a compliment for getting a tricky one right, such as Radivojevic (I think it's Ra-di-VOI-ye-vich), I hadn't thought much about names until I heard a great podcast on the topic. I thought I'd share a couple tips.

First, if you're not particularly good at names or if you struggle with certain types of names, it's better to ask than to butcher it. Like learning the wrong way to hit a golf ball, you may never be able to do it properly once you've done it wrong. (Trust me, I know from both.)

If I'm feeling confident, I'll give it a try. But if unsure, I ask the patient to pronounce it for me, then I repeat it to confirm I've gotten it correct. Then I say it once or twice more during the visit. Lastly, for the knotty tongue-twisting ones, I write it phonetically in their chart.

It is important because mispronouncing names can alienate patients. It might make them feel like we don't "know" them or that we don't care about them. Making an effort to pronounce every patients' name correctly I believe is a simple act we can all do to move us closer to mitigating racial biases and eliminating ethnic disparities in care. Just think how much harder it might be to convince skeptical patients to take their lisinopril if you can't even get their names right.

Worse perhaps than getting the pronunciation wrong is to turn the name into an issue. Saying: "Oh, that's hard to pronounce" could be felt as a subtly racist remark – it's not hard for them to pronounce of course, only for you. Also, guessing a patient's nationality from the name is risky. Asking "are you Russian?" to someone from Ukraine or "is that Chinese?" to someone from Vietnam can quickly turn a nice office visit down a road named "Awkward." It can give the impression that they "all look the same" to you, exactly the type of exclusion we're trying to eliminate in medicine.

Saying a patient's name perfectly is rewarding and a super-efficient way to connect. It can make salient the truth that you care about the patient and about his or her story, even if the name happens to be Mrs. Xiomara Winyuwongse Khosrowshahi Sundararajan Ngoc. Go ahead, give it a try.

Want more on how properly pronounce names correctly? You might like this episode of NPR's Life Kit.

Jeffrey Benabio, MD, MBA, is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. He is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at dermnews@mdedge.com

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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