Physician preferences vary
Although the results of the Mayo Clinic analysis didn’t and couldn’t address physician sentiments on patient informality, Dr. Setya observes that American culture is becoming less formal. “I’ve been practicing for over 10 years, and the number of people who consider doctors as equals is growing,” he says. “This has been particularly true over the last couple of years.”
This change was documented in 2015. Add in the pandemic and an entire society that is now accustomed to working from home in sweats, and it’s not a stretch to understand why some patients have become less formal in many settings. The 2015 article noted, however, that most physicians prefer to keep titles in the mix.
Perhaps most troublesome, says Dr. Setya, is that patients forgo asking whether it’s OK to use his first name and simply assume it’s acceptable. “It bothers me,” he says. “I became a doctor for more than the money.”
He suspects that his cultural background (Dr. Setya is of Indian descent) plays a role in how strongly he feels about patient-doctor informality. “As a British colony, Indian culture dictates that you pay respect to elders and to accomplishment,” he points out. “America is far looser when it comes to salutations.”
Dr. Cucuzzella largely agrees with Dr. Setya, but has a different view of the role culture plays in how physicians prefer to be addressed. “If your last name is difficult to pronounce, it can put the patient at ease if you give them an option,” he says. “I like my patients to feel comfortable and have a friendly conversation, so I don’t ask them to try to manage my last name.”
When patients revert to using Dr. Cucuzzella’s last name and title, this often breaks down along generational lines, Dr. Cucuzzella has found: Older patients might drop his title, whereas younger patients might keep it as a sign of respect. In some cases, Dr. Cucuzzella tries to bridge this gap, and offers the option of “Dr. Mark.” In his small West Virginia community, this is how people often refer to him.
Dr. Setya says that most of the older physicians he works with still prefer that patients and younger colleagues use their title, but he has witnessed exceptions to this. “My boss in residence hated to be called ‘Sir’ or ‘Doctor,’ ” he says. “In a situation like that, it is reasonable to ask, ‘How can I address you?’ But it has to be mutually agreed upon.”
Dr. Cucuzzella cites informality as the preferred mode for older patients. “If I have a 70-year-old patient, it seems natural they shouldn’t use my title,” he says. “They are worthy of equality in the community. If I’m talking to a retired CEO or state delegate, it’s uncomfortable if they call me doctor.”
Moreover, Dr. Cucuzzella maintains that establishing a less formal environment with patients leads to better outcomes. “Shared decision-making is a basic human right,” he says. “In 2022, doctors shouldn’t make decisions without patient input, unless it’s an emergency situation. Removing the title barriers makes that easier.”