Intended for healthcare professionals


On first name terms

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 01 July 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:45
  1. A L Wyman

    Not long after I retired I ran into one of our old students as I was leaving a medical meeting. We exchanged the usual civilities and then he said, “There was one thing you taught me on a ward round which I have never forgotten.” I was flattered but mystified. “What was that?” “You asked me to examine an old man in one of the medical beds, and I said to him ‘Sit up Dad, let's have a look at you.' You pulled me up instantly. ‘He is not your Dad he is Mr Jones and that is how you should speak to him.'”

    My role has changed--from doctor to patient. I returned recently to my old hospital for a small operation. I have nothing but praise for the way that I was treated by all concerned. Only one small incident made me feel a little uncomfortable. A young male nurse ushered me into an office with a cheerful “Come in Arthur, I just want to do a few tests.” A trifle, but somehow it grated. I come of a generation when the surname was the usual form of address, except among close friends and relatives. As a youth a nickname was sometimes bestowed on me. Later I learnt to be on first name terms with colleagues. Nowadays, of course, the first name address is so common that people are unable to tell you the surnames of any of their friends. I was pernickety and out of date. Narrowing of cerebral arteries and diminishing cerebral neurones must be my excuse.

    But at the eleventh hour Katharine Whitehorn, with her usual humanity and commonsense, has come to the rescue (The Observer, 9 April 1995). Medics, she maintains, “lead the field in the intrusive intimacy of calling everybody by their first names. The doctor addresses you as Jane because he thinks he is being friendly, and his receptionists and bottle washers follow suit.” She adds that “calling someone by their first name who must still call you Doctor, Nurse or Sir simply emphasises your superiority.”

    We mean well, but nothing is straightforward. How difficult it all is. I do not really mind being called Arthur, now that I have got used to it. It is better than being called Dad by a total stranger.--A L WYMAN is a retired consultant physician in London

    View Abstract