When Mark Cucuzzella, MD, meets a new patient at the West Virginia Medical School clinic, he introduces himself as “Mark.” For one thing, says Dr. Cucuzzella, his last name is a mouthful. For another, the 56-year-old general practitioner asserts that getting on a first-name basis with his patients is integral to delivering the best care.
“I’m trying to break down the old paternalistic barriers of the doctor/patient relationship,” he says. “Titles create an environment where the doctors are making all the decisions and not involving the patient in any course of action.”
Aniruddh Setya, MD, has a different take on informality between patients and doctors: It’s not OK. “I am not your friend,” says the 35-year-old pediatrician from Florida-based KIDZ Medical Services. “There has to be a level of respect for the education and accomplishment of being a physician.”
published in JAMA Network Open. But that doesn’t mean most physicians support the practice. In fact, some doctors contend that it can be harmful, particularly to female physicians.
“My concern is that untitling (so termed by Amy Diehl, PhD, and Leanne Dzubinski, PhD) intrudes upon important professional boundaries and might be correlated with diminishing the value of someone’s time,” says Leah Witt, MD, a geriatrician at UCSF Health, San Francisco. Dr. Witt, along with colleague Lekshmi Santhosh, MD, a pulmonologist, offered commentary on the study results. “Studies have shown that women physicians get more patient portal messages, spend more time in the electronic health record, and have longer visits,” Dr. Witt said. “Dr. Santhosh and I wonder if untitling is a signifier of this diminished value of our time, and an assumption of increased ease of access leading to this higher workload.”
To compile the results reported in JAMA Network Open, Mayo Clinic researchers analyzed more than 90,000 emails from patients to doctors over the course of 3 years, beginning in 2018. Of those emails, more than 32% included the physician’s first name in greeting or salutation. For women physicians, the odds were twice as high that their titles would be omitted in the correspondence. The same holds true for doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) compared with MDs, and primary care physicians had similar odds for a title drop compared with specialists.
Dr. Witt says the findings are not surprising. “They match my experience as a woman in medicine, as Dr. Santhosh and I write in our commentary,” she says. “We think the findings could easily be replicated at other centers.”
Indeed, research on 321 speaker introductions at a medical rounds found that when female physicians introduced other physicians, they usually applied the doctor title. When the job of introducing colleagues fell to male physicians, however, the stats fell to 72.4% for male peers and only 49.2% when introducing female peers.
The Mayo Clinic study authors identified the pitfalls of patients who informally address their doctors. They wrote, “Untitling may have a negative impact on physicians, demonstrate lack of respect, and can lead to reduction in formality of the physician/patient relationship or workplace.”