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'Patients must retain the right to decide how they are referred to by health professionals'

  • Comments (10)

As a student nurse I was taught to address patients formally - Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms - unless they requested otherwise. It was drummed into us that patients must never be labelled as bed numbers or by their diagnosis - “the stroke in bed 4” was deemed unacceptable as were terms of endearment such as “sweetheart”.

I found these rules relatively easy to follow. I had been brought up to address adults formally and it still makes me laugh that my mother never granted permission to use her first name, not even to her children’s partners.

But such rigid social conventions are no longer the norm and walking the line between formality and informality is a difficult one. So, a cautionary tale…

I once nursed a lady, let’s call her Mrs Devlin. Her first name was Elizabeth. She lived alone and had no family in England. She had long-term mental health problems and was very suspicious of nursing staff. Every time I looked after her I addressed her as Mrs Devlin and we got on brilliantly, but some nurses found her uncooperative and difficult.

No one noticed a connection between her name and how she related to staff until her sister visited from Ireland. She noticed that some of the staff referred to Mrs Devlin as Elizabeth. Apparently, from childhood, Mrs Devlin hated her first name and had always refused to answer to it, preferring to call herself Lily. No one asked Mrs Devlin if they could call her Elizabeth and she responded by withdrawing from them. Clearly, an attempt to break down barriers through informality had only created yet a bigger one.

Many nurses ask their patients whether they would prefer to be addressed by their first name or as Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms. This is a loaded question which perhaps implies that nurses want to be on first names terms, and I am sure many patients feel pressurised to comply with this expectation.

We can never make assumptions about patients and basic social conventions are vital in establishing relationships, particularly when patients feel vulnerable, dependent and emotionally fragile. Patients must retain the right to decide how they are referred to by health professionals and to assume otherwise is disrespectful.

  • Comments (10)

Readers' comments (10)

  • Anonymous

    Just ask people what they want to be called. And do not talk down to people - that tends to annoy people in general !

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  • Anonymous

    Maybe people make assumptions on how to address and treat others based on their own social environment. As nurses, however, we come into contact with members of the public of all ages and generations and a a great diversity of social backgrounds all with different norms and social rules. Finding out about others and respecting their social rules when in our care is one of the fascinating challenges of nursing.

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  • Anonymous

    I always thought that asking people what they preferred to be called was standard procedure.
    Lots of people are known by a name different to that on their birth certificate.Most places that I have worked in have a section for this on admission forms. I think that terms such as dear, sweetie and babe have no place in care practice unless specifically asked to do so which would be rare.

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  • Anonymous

    I have never used such terms of endearment in my life and even in my private life I find it courtesy to agree mutually early on how to address others and how you wish to be addressed. In other European languages where there are familiar and formal forms of you this is even more complicated and is important to get it right.

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  • I always call patients Mr /Mrs / Ms automatically and only use first names if invited to do so. I am slightly irritated by the double standard however that deems it fine for patients to automatically call me by my first name. I do not stroll up to the patients as some nurses do and say "Hi I'm Sarah/ Mary/Paul", I give my full name. It's not that i mind patients addressing me as Sarah but it would be nice to be asked.

    After all when do you hear patients calling the Doctor by his/her first name?

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  • Anonymous

    I call patients Mr/Mrs when I first meet them, they inevitably ask me to call them by their first name or by a nick-name - sometimes they even say call me 'creaky legs' or 'shorty'. This can seem over-familiar to some relatives or staff but surely it is our relationship with the patient that is important and often this familiarity lightens the mood, a lot of patients like to have a bit of a laugh in hospital and like a bit of cheekiness. As long as staff know their boundaries, don't cause offense and know when to be formal then there shouldn't really be a problem should there.

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  • Anonymous

    respect is mutual. I find out or sense how others like to be treated and in nursing or providing any service this is part of the job but I also expect to be treated with equal respect which includes addressing me appropriately and according to the circumstances. I had enough in school of my name being shorted to something I hated and found it impossible to break the habit. even now, light years later, the name has stuck with some people although I have requested on several occasions my proper name is used.

    Like the patients, I have a name, and unlike them but like other members of staff I have to wear a name badge so I expected to be addressed by my name by those able to read it. My name is not 'nurse', 'matron' or 'sister' and unless it is an emergency or very important I do not respond to a label.

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  • Anonymous

    I hate it when anyone shortens my name, and if they call be by that "other" name I just don't answer, so they then have to try again, using the full name, or even "excuse me". If they ask me why I didn't answer, I say "my name is ..., not ...., I didn't realise you were talking to me". I respect everyone's right to be called whatever they wish to be called, patients included.
    I recall a nurse who called almost all the patients "my lovely". Not one person took offence or asked her to stop, because she used the words to indicate that she cared for her patients. Rather that than someone being politically correct and not able to communicate their compassion and support to their patients.

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  • Anonymous

    In mental health settings it is common to call patients by their first names and for them to call staff by their's.

    Regarding the person who hates their name to be shortened. I think it is taking it too far to ignore people for not giving that person their full name. Why not just politely remind people of what they prefer to be called?

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  • Anonymous

    In that particular instance, the person who was calling me by my shortened name was a colleague who I would describe as ignorant. She only spoke to me (using the wrong name) to ask me to sign her timesheet. I would never ignore a patient or a colleague who, like me, is not good at remembering names. To me, it's a matter of politeness. I retain the right to decide how I shall be referred to! If people are ignorant enough to ignore that then I retain the right to ignore them in return!

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