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“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” 

   Romeo and Juliet   Act II, Scene II

   William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


Reading time 4:30 min.


I have to disagree with William Shakespeare a little.  When it comes to a person’s name, sometimes it is important to get it right. Watching the public interact with strangers, sometimes I want to cringe.  That is especially the case when I am in a more formal setting like a doctor’s office.

My mother is 97 and still sharp.  It strikes me as a little strange and cavalier when we are in a doctor’s office and a twenty year old technician calls my mother Marjorie.  Of course, my mother wouldn’t say anything or correct the technician even if my mom felt it is rude. But quiet acceptance doesn’t mean it is well-received.

My mother is not an exception. Many of our older patients feel it is somewhat presumptuous when addressed in such an informal fashion by someone they do not know. My mom was born in 1921. She is a part of The Greatest Generation (1901-1926).  It was important then to respect your elders. Now that she is an elderly person herself, she feels it is appropriate to ask what name she prefers.

That was not the only generation raised to feel this way.  My parents also ingrained that behavior in my sisters and me.  We grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  I am in the Baby Boomer generation as are many of the patients we see on a daily basis.  We also learned to respect our elders. That rule of etiquette became a part of how we interact with others.  Many in this age group still expect that treatment. I know it may seem antiquated to some people, but I think there is some merit in reviewing and considering this old rule of etiquette.

Some rules of etiquette still make sense in today’s modern world, despite the fact that they are disappearing. Common courtesies when speaking to an individual are important.  Baby boomers learned that if we were speaking to someone our age or younger, then it was proper to use the person’s first name.  But, it was a sign of respect to address people who were older by using their social title (Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms.) or their professional title (Doctor, Reverend, Father, Sister, Judge, etc.).  If the person said it was alright to use their first name, then you were able to address them as such.  But, it was only done with their permission.  If they didn’t suggest you call them by their first name, then you could ask for their permission.  But you never used their first name alone without asking first.

Showing respect and some common courtesies to your patients is a simple and inexpensive way you can make your office stand out from others.  To me, that means how you treat a patient from the moment they walk in the door to the time they leave the office.  Phone conversations, e-mails, letters and social media posts should also follow the same rules.

I read somewhere that a good way to look at what constitutes good manners today is to think about how other people may feel about the interaction.  How the recipient perceives your actions is more important than what is the easiest and most convenient for you.

Think about it. Doesn’t your patient offer respect to you by calling you Doctor?  Patients don’t assume they can address you by your first name. They show respect for you and the work you did to earn that title. Personally, I don’t mind my long-standing patients calling me by my first name. In fact, I often suggest that they do. Yet, it would seem strange to me if a patient new to my office began calling me Beth without asking or establishing a relationship with me first. I think that would be true in most offices. If the patient offers us that courtesy, shouldn’t we reciprocate?

Suggestions for today’s offices

There is the argument that everyone has much more informal interactions these days. But that doesn’t make it right in every situation.  It is never wrong to be polite and considerate. Always ask a patient if you can use their first name.

If you don’t want to be overly formal by using social titles (Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc.) then at least use their first and last name on your initial encounter until you know how they want to be addressed.

Don’t assume you can shorten their name (i.e. Bill for William or Cindy for Cynthia, etc.).  Ask them the name they prefer.  Show your respect for them by always asking first.

When a patient has given me permission to use their first name, I generally put a note in the chart to indicate I have their permission to use it.   If they prefer a shortened version or nickname, I also record that.  When their name is difficult to pronounce, I try and write it in phonetics so that the next time I meet them, I will pronounce it properly. People will notice your efforts to use their name correctly.

We all want to make our offices stand out from others. Why not try this simple trick- be polite, courteous and sometimes maybe a little old-fashioned with manners? So few people offer these courtesies any more, you will stand out as special and unique just by being polite.  Don’t mistake good manners, respect and common courtesies with being formal or stodgy. An informal, fun, casual environment can still be respectful.

There are many ways to distinguish our practices. Each practice must decide what works best for them.  Offering state of the art care with the best staff, facilities and equipment accomplishes that goal.  I don’t disagree with that and in fact, encourage you to always set a high standard for the care you offer. But be aware, these changes might not always have the impact you are expecting.  If you ignore some of the simple and basic rules of dealing with people, your patients may not even notice what you think they should see.  Patients come back to your office because of how they felt about the care and attention they received while in your office.

Greet a patient with a smile. Shake their hand.  Have a friendly tone to your voice in person or on the phone.  Make eye contact and give them your undivided attention.  Treat them as a valued visitor to your office and not as an inconvenience to your day.  When they leave your office, they should know without a doubt that you valued them, cared for them and want them to return.

For more information on the thoughts and values of different generations of patients seen in your office go to

How is a patient addressed in your office? Do you have a set policy?  Do you feel it is important to consider this issue of names?  Leave your comments below.  Share your ideas on how you handle this in your office.  Let’s start a discussion.


  1. Love these articles, Beth! Great job!

    1. Thanks for your comments and support Jimmie. I am glad that you appreciate the articles.

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