...and what does your doctor call you?
Last month, Anne Marie Valinoti, a physician in New Jersey, opined about that subject in the New York Times. Dr Valinoti is generally called that — “Doctor Valinoti” — though there are some patients, generally ones much older than she, who call her by her first name. In the other direction, she claims consistency:
Regardless of whether I am “Anne Marie” or “Dr. Valinoti” to a patient, I rarely call a patient by his or her first name. As a rule, patients who are my senior are always “Mr./Ms./Dr.” Patients I meet for the first time are always addressed by their title, even teenagers (it seems silly, I know).
It doesn’t seem silly to me, because there’s more than an age or class difference conveyed by the sort of formality that dictates the “Dr Valinoti” and “Mr Smith” pairing. There’s a clarity of roles and the creation of a mutual respect between the patient and the physician, which I think are important aspects of the relationship.
It seems more natural for “Doctor” to do the poking and prodding that’s sometimes necessary, than for it to be “Anne Marie” or “Andrew”, and my saying “Doctor” reminds us both of the professional aspect. And it may facilitate the giving — and receiving — of difficult news for me to be “Mr Leiba”, and not “Barry”.
There’s also the linguistic side of this: other languages have separate second-person references for formal and familiar address. “Usted” vs “tú” in Spanish, “vous” vs “tu” in French, “Sie” vs “du” in German... these allow speakers of those languages to maintain formality in normal speech, just by how they say “you”. In English, we’ve lost the formal forms of address, leaving us to rely on titles (or the often stilted “sir” and “ma’am”) to maintain a separation from the too-familiar.
Of course, each patient will have her own sense of this, and doctors should defer to patients’ wishes on the matter. If a patient feels more comfortable being on a first-name basis, the physician should accept that. In no case would, “That’s Doctor Veeblefester to you!” be appropriate. (If it’s a child stepping over the line, it should be a parent who addresses that, not the doctor.)
Q: What do you call the guy who graduated last in his class at medical school?
 Yeah, a month ago; I’m behind.