Growing up, when I infrequently visited our family GP, he was always referred to by his first name. I do remember when we were really young putting a ‘Doctor’ before his first name, but we never referred to him by his surname. He was always ‘Dr Sam’ until he became just ‘Sam’.

Since being diagnosed with diabetes and becoming a frequent flyer of healthcare services, I have only ever addressed HCPs by their first name. (Except my endo who frequently gets referred to by her first and middle name together, but that is because my kid has the same middle name (named for my endo) so when speaking to and of each other, we use both names..)

When meeting a new HCP, I will walk into a first appointment, hand extended as we do our introductions. I always say, ‘Please call me Renza,’ although I don’t know that I have ever had a doctor not call me by my first name in the first instance. In fact, usually, when called in from the waiting room, they do so by using my first name.

So it’s probably not surprising that I found myself prickling a little as I read this article from a couple of months ago, written my an oncologist from the US. James Salwitz MD tells the story of a new patient – an elderly man who attended with his adult son. The son insisted on calling Dr Salwitz* by his first name which, apparently, was a little unnerving for the doctor. He referred to it as a cultural faux pas, suggesting that it was being done to… ‘diminsh the power and value of my experience, control and guidance.’ 

Now, I know it is possible that there are some cultural differences here. In Australia, we seem to have a far more relaxed attitude about being formal. And we also don’t necessarily consider that using someone’s first name shows a lack of respect as suggested by Dr Salwitz and some of the commenters at the end of the piece.

I asked a few people – also regular users of healthcare – and most said they used only first names. A few said they would always refer doctors by their titles, but nurses by their first names. This raises another point about the hierarchy of healthcare professionals. I’m not sure why one would be more inclined to use Dr Diabetes for the endo, but not Ms/Mr Diabetes for the nurse.

I treat and regard my healthcare team with nothing other than respect. I speak to them with respect, I respect their time and how busy they are, and I recognise their professional expertise. How I address them does not diminish this respect, nor undermine their qualification.

What was not clear in the article I read was how Dr Salwitz addressed the person he was treating (or his son). If there was an expectation from doctors that they are addressed by their professional title, then surely they should demonstrate the same courtesy (if that is what it is) and address their patients by their title and surname.

Any discomfort can be solved at the first greeting. This is one of the reasons the #HelloMyNameIs campaign is so important. Clear introductions from the beginning establish how people would prefer to be addressed. If unsure, the question ‘Is it okay for me to call you by your first name’ can be asked by both physician and consumer.

Feeling comfortable in our medical appointments is necessary if we are to get the most from the limited time we have before our HCPs. And for that to occur, there needs to be mutual respect and no imbalance of power. I feel very fortunate to have that with my team.

*Thought is best to refer to Dr Salwitz by his title throughout this post.