And there is little research to tackle the problem head-on. A previous study, published in 2000, surveyed doctors and found that three-quarters said some patients addressed them by their first name. But nothing else was available in the medical literature, and reviewing the emails offered a new approach. The medical center provided Dr. Yang and his colleagues with a wealth of email exchanges, enabling the analysis of 29,498 messages from 14,958 patients sent from October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2021.
The changing behavior they saw in emails differs even from the recent past when it was virtually unheard of to call doctors by their first names, notes Jonathan Moreno, professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. He saw it in his own family, he added.
“My dad was a psychiatrist with his own sanatorium in Beacon, NY, where I grew up,” he said. “Patients, their families, staff, city dwellers never addressed him as anything but the doctor or called him “the doctor”. I don’t recall my parents ever referring to his colleagues or their own caregivers as anything other than a doctor, unless they were close friends.
Popular culture of the 1960s and 1970s reflected this tradition, Dr. Moreno noted, with medical dramas like “Dr. Kildare”, which involved a young trainee – Dr Kildare – and his mentor, Dr Gillespie. There was also the popular drama “Marcus Welby, MD,” featuring a kind family doctor whose patients always called him Dr. Welby but who called patients by their first names. This television tradition appears to be “one of the few that survived into the 21st century”, Dr. Moreno said.
Physicians may not appreciate the real world’s tilt towards informality. The 2000 survey showed that 61% were annoyed when patients addressed them by their first name.
Their displeasure makes sense, said Debra Roter, professor emeritus of health, behavior and society at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. The use of a first name can violate the boundary between doctor and patient.
“Doctors might find this undermines their authority,” Dr. Roter said. “There is a familiarity that first names give people.”
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