Dear Sir or Madam

A letter writer to the Boston Globe (Tired of being on a first-name basis) has the following to say:

While hospitals such as Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center continue to investigate how their patients are being treated, I suggest they consider the appalling practice of doctors, nurses, technicians, receptionists, and virtually everyone else in the hospital calling patients by their first name. Unless the patient is a child, or the patient has asked to be called by his or her first name, this is inappropriate and patronizing. It immediately establishes a power relationship in which the patient is placed in the inferior position. What kind of conversation flows from this setup?

Most people under the age of about 50 –which includes the majority of medical and non-medical staff at hospitals– are used to calling people by their first names without asking permission. That includes bosses and co-workers. Younger people may actually feel patronized if someone calls them Mr. or Mrs. –it sounds overly formal and reminds them of being tssk tssked by their mother or first grade teacher.

Many older people –the type of people who tend to be hospital patients– feel almost the opposite, and have reactions typical of this letter writer. I remember being embarrassed for an older relative when hospital staff repeatedly called him by a shortened version of his first name that no one on the outside had ever called him in 80 years.

It shouldn’t be so hard to be sensitive enough to ask someone what they want to be called, should it?

June 21, 2007

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