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Erik the Doctor

October 2008

I have been trying to figure out the right angle for writing about how we address our colleagues and patients without having readers roll their eyes and say, “What is he going to write about next: boxers or briefs?” But how we address each other is an interesting topic, given all the recent “Joe the Plumber” references generated by the presidential campaign. While I doubt I will wake up tomorrow to find CNN at my door after John McCain reads my blog and embraces the cause of “Erik the Doctor,” I’d still like to lay out a few thoughts.

To my physician colleagues, I am “Erik.” I never quite understand why other doctors insist on introducing themselves to me as “Dr. So and So.” Unless I am developing a patient-doctor relationship, why be so formal? I have noticed that this is largely a phenomenon of older physicians. In addition, I get the sense that in many cultures it is considered rude to address a physician by his/her first name.

How doctors address one another is the scenario that is the least significant to me. Use whatever name you like best; at the end of the day the relationship is about providing the best care for patients.

To my nursing colleagues, I am first “Erik DeLue,” then “Erik” or “Dr. DeLue”–their call. Many would argue that expecting the “Dr.” designation when talking with nurses is a matter of respect. My pushback is that I don’t believe doctors who prefer to be called “Dr.” address nurses by their title.

Our training is no doubt different, but not so much so that we should not afford them the same respect we might expect if we choose formality. A quick Google search led me to some nursing blogs on this subject, and most writers were rankled by physicians who insisted on the “Dr.” designation. While the nurses believed it was essential to address the physician as “Dr.” when in the presence of patients, they found it arrogant that a doctor would insist on the title during conversations out of patients’ earshot. It is difficult to find a compelling counter-argument.

Here’s an example of how this informality helps to build relationships. In a previous job, I hired a doc, Stan, just out of a top residency program. I led him around the hospital to meet people and watched him introduce himself to everyone, doctors and nurses alike, as “Stan.” In the space of one day, he was one of the most well-liked doctors in the hospital. He later proved to have excellent clinical acumen and a terrific bedside manner, but it was the fact that even as a young doctor he was confident enough not to cling to a title that instantly earned everyone’s respect.

To my patients, I am “Dr. Erik DeLue.” I leave it up to them to choose what combination of those three words they prefer to use. I do believe it is important to introduce oneself with some formality; after all, I am their doctor and they are presumably going to equate formality with professionalism.

Most patients want their doctor to call them by their first name but prefer doctors to introduce themselves using title and first and last names. Few patients prefer either the most casual option of first name only or the most formal option of just title and surname. But after the introduction, I leave it to the patient to find the balance that makes him/her most comfortable.

And if that means calling me Dr. DeLue, Dr. Erik, or just Erik, I’m fine with it. It is not my title that is going to convince anyone that I am competent and worthy of their respect. My actions have to do that.