How do we address our patients?

Imagine you are just about to call in a new patient. His notes inform you he was born in 1938, but will this person be an ‘old before his time’ gentleman with a stick and a medical history as long as your arm or a lean, tanned 70-year-old who lopes along the corridor in his leathers, swinging a biker’s crash helmet? Will it be a very proper retired civil servant who still wears a pin-striped suit for his dental appointments, and highly polished shoes that reflect the whole world, or the self-assured white-haired jazz musician and writer who leaps up immediately, fixes you with a smile and is a friend from the start?

How do they like to be addressed? Is it better to call ‘John Smith’ or ‘Mr Smith’ or ‘Mr John Smith’? All these permutations and decisions assail us in a few seconds, and those first moments are all-important in establishing a relationship with your patient.
Years ago my idea of luxury was to have someone to call the patients for me and save embarrassment and me the decision-making. During one of my patches of low confidence, I would stand at the waiting room door in a quandary. The receptionist or computer had informed me the 10.30 patient was in but I had called twice and there had been no movement or answer from the people waiting.

As I surveyed the room anxiously a bent old lady in the corner rummaged in her handbag; was this my patient? Eventually she raised herself painfully to her swollen feet and came towards me but she had given no indication earlier that she was the person I‘d called, and the other people had all looked up and were watching me – and each other – with curiosity. Other times I would leave the room after no response to my call only to discover that someone had followed me to my surgery!

Time for introductions
I can only surmise, charitably, that people do not know how to respond, or of the time constraints upon us. Various things influence us over the years and in private practice we can behave differently. I now have slightly more time and make a point of introducing myself to a new patient, offering my hand for them to shake and saying something like: ‘I don’t think we’ve met before.’ This saves embarrassment just in case I have treated them years
earlier and had forgotten. Many people seem impressed by this approach and tell me their first name as we shake hands so I know how they like to be addressed in future. It moves that first moment into a different zone and we set off onto a different, more relaxed footing. The recent reports about dental nurses exposing their frustrations with patients’ behaviour on Facebook show that patients do not regard us as human beings with feelings. Perhaps we need to approach them differently as well!

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