When Mark Cucuzzella, MD, meets a new patient at the West Virginia Medical School clinic, he introduces himself as “Mark.” For one thing, says 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.”
The issue of “untitling” a doctor and failing to use their honorific is becoming increasingly common, according to a recent study 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. 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,” 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.
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.”
Physician Preferences Vary
Although the results of the Mayo Clinic analysis didn’t and couldn’t address physician sentiments on patient informality, 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.”
Medscape documented this change back 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 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 (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.”
Cucuzzella largely agrees with 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 Cucuzzella’s last name and title, this often breaks down along generational lines, Cucuzzella has found: Older patients might drop his title, whereas younger patients might keep it as a sign of respect. In some cases, 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.
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.”
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, 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.”
How to Handle Informality
If you fall more in line with Setya, there are strategies you can use to try to keep formality in your doctor-patient relationships. Setya’s approach is indirect. “I don’t correct a patient if they use my first name, because that might seem hostile,” he says. “But I alert them in the way I address them back. A Sir, a Mrs, or a Mr needs to go both ways.”
This particularly holds true in pediatrics, Setya has found. He has witnessed many colleagues addressing parents as “Mommy and Daddy,” something he says lacks respect and sets too informal a tone. “It’s almost universal that parents don’t like that, and we need to act accordingly.”
Witt also avoids directly correcting patients, but struggles when they drop her title. “The standard signature I use to sign every patient portal message I respond to includes my first and last name and credentials,” she says. “I maintain formality in most circumstances with that standard reply.”
Beneath the surface, however, Witt wishes it were easier. “I have struggled with answering the question, ‘Is it OK if I call you Leah?’ she says. “I want to keep our interaction anchored in professionalism without sacrificing the warmth I think is important to a productive patient-physician relationship. For this reason, I tend to say yes to this request, even though I’d rather patients didn’t make such requests.”
In the Fast Company article by Diehl and Dzubinski on the topic of untitling professional women, the authors suggest several actions, beginning with leadership that sets expectations on the topic. They also suggest that physicians use polite corrections if patients untitle them. Supplying positive reinforcement when patients include your title can help, too. If all else fails, you can call out the offensive untitling. More often than not, especially with female physicians, the patient is demonstrating an unconscious bias rather than something deliberate.
Opinions vary on the topic of untitling, and ultimately each physician must make the decision for themselves. But creating informal cultures in an organization can have unintended consequences, especially for female peers.
Says Witt, “We all want to give our patients the best care we can, but professional boundaries are critical to time management, equitable care, and maintaining work-life balance. I would love to see a study that examines untitling by self-reported race and/or ethnicity of physicians, because we know that women of color experience higher rates of burnout and depression, and I wonder if untitling may be part of this.”