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It’s all in the title, professionally speaking that is

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From the Spring 2010 issue of Scrubs

In The New York Times, a doctor recently recalled an absurdity she’d observed as a first-year intern: Even though she hadn’t yet begun her career, critical care nurses with decades of experience addressed her as “doctor” while the nurses themselves were called by their first names. Does it bother you that nurses aren’t given a title of respect—no matter what your level of expertise? How would you prefer to be addressed?

How would you prefer to be addressed?

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As we all know, nurses and physicians have a unique working relationship. Lately the question of professionalism and courtesy have surfaced. Specifically, in this case, how you’re being addressed by doctors and patients, and how you in turn address the physician.

I have had some pretty flexible professional relationships with some very distinguished surgeons and physicians. In almost all cases I have addressed them as ‘Dr. [insert last name]’. On occasion I have said ‘Dr. [insert first name]’.

The physicians in turn call me by my first name – Sean. So do the patients. I’ve never been called Nurse Dent, nor have I been called Nurse Sean. It’s always been Sean, nothing more.

When I answer the phone at work, I always say “… this is Sean, how may I help you”. I never say this is ‘Sean, RN’, or ‘Nurse Sean’.

(I promise there’s a point to my rambling)

I have only ever called a physician by his first name once. I had an exceptional rapport with him, and he actually requested to be called by his first name. (I admit, it took me a long time to call him by his first name). Is it ‘old school’ thinking that all doctors should be addressed with their title? What is it in me that causes me to feel a lil’ uncomfortable otherwise? And why do I require myself to address the doctor with their title, but do not require myself or others to address me as ‘Nurse’??

I spend a lot of waking hours defending the notion that the profession of nursing has grown and that the misconception of nurses as the doctor’s handmaid needs to be stamped out and beaten down with a baseball bat. The profession of nursing has evolved. That notion ranks right up there with the white skirted outfit with the complimentary white cap and the sexy nurse fantasy. GRR.

So why the double standard? Why professionally address the doctor with his title, and not require/want to be professionally addressed in the same manner? I adamantly admit – I would never want to be addressed as ‘Nurse Sean’. I rather enjoy the personal nature of being called by my first name, and not a title. (I also embarrassingly admit that hearing a nurse called with the word nurse gets me thinking about the movie ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ with Nurse Ratched)

I hate to think it, but are my actions are creating a double standard within my fight to defend the growth of my profession?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

This article is mentioned in the Spring 2010 print edition of Scrubs Magazine, which can be found at uniform retail stores nationwide or purchased online. Go to for a peek inside and to find out where you can get your copy!

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20 Responses to It’s all in the title, professionally speaking that is

  1. Katie M

    I am a recent nurse grad working at a pediatricians office. I call all of the physicians and nurse practitioners by their first names, except for when I address them in front of patients and introduce the patients to the physician.

  2. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Katie Thanks for your input! :)

  3. Shawnee

    I’ve got a great job where I’m very close with the doctors I work with. When I’m just talking with them, I can call them Dr Joe, or Dr B or even by their first names, they don’t mind at all. I never do that in front of a patient, though. To be fair, most (not all) doctors have a higher level of education and have earned their degree (and therefore the title) of doctor. Nursing has many levels and some may earn the title of “Nurse So-and-so”, but some …. they just haven’t earned it. Personally, I’ve only been called “Nurse Shawnee” once by a patient, but it was special enough that I remembered it. :)

  4. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Shawnee It sounds like a great place to work. Thanks for commenting!

  5. hi everybody,
    Have you ever been called just “nurse”? As in “excuse me, nurse…” or “hey Nurse!..” or “nurse get me a forcept stat!”
    I am a Home Health Aide and i am just suprized that any of my elderly clients even remember my that my name is Sean and call me Sean.
    😀 :) 😉

  6. Hello again everybody,
    How do you introduse yourself; “Hi, my name is Sean and i will be your nurse…” OR “Hi, I am Nurse Sean…” OR EVEN “Hi, I am Nurse Dent…” or some other way????
    However you choise to introduse yourself While your at work should indicate just how you want to be adressed while your on duty. Don’t you think so?

  7. One of our nurses preferred to be called “Nurse ______ (last name)”, even by her co-workers. That’s how she introduced herself and how she answered the phone. I objected once, stating that was so 1950s, and she wasn’t a 1950s nurse–she was very up-to-date on knowledge and she was not a doormat or a physician’s handmaiden. So far as I know, I was the only person she allowed to call her by her first name, but I was careful not to do so in front of her patients.

    As for my own preference–considering that it was 6 months at my current job before a physician called me by ANY name at all (the disadvantage of being a night nurse), I’m just pleased they pay enough attention to know I HAVE a name.

  8. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Sean I think it has everything to do with you and your greeting, as well as how you carry yourself and your professionalism. Of course how you introduce yourself has an influence on how you are addressed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    @ Stephanie D Thanks for sharing!

  9. Alana

    Thanks for this, Sean!

    To answer your question: when I introduce myself to my patients I say “Hi, I’m Alana and I’ll be your nurse today,” to which they reply “Hi… sorry, what was your name again?” and I say “it’s Alana… sounds like ‘banana,'” which I always earns me a smile and instant rapport with my patients. Like you, I enjoy the personal nature of being called by my first name, and it complements the personal nature of my work. Furthermore, being myself is what makes me a great nurse.

    Thanks again!

  10. Glenna

    I work as a rehab nurse in a skilled unit. We have several doctors that visit patients and in the past three years only one of those doctors even acknowledges my existence and will ask for input on their patients. Before I can be called anything I first must be acknowledged.

  11. Jannie

    I was kind of amazed when I read this article. I’m a Danish nurse, working at a small hospital in Copenhagen. Over here you ALWAYS adress the doctors with their first name. Even when introducing your self or the doctors to the patients you are on a first name basis. I guess it must be because we Scandinavians are a pretty laid back people.

  12. Victor

    Being called something respectful is better than hearing “Hey yo, Nurse!”, by a wonderful 4th year med student.

  13. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Victor Well said!

  14. Elisabeth

    I always just introduce myself and get called by my first name, which is fine. As for doctors, I work at a very large hospital with a long tradition of being one of the best in the country, and even these doctors just get called by their first names. In fact, I think nearly all of them would find it a bit weird and awkward to be addressed as ‘Doctor ….’ (except the very old professors!). I find that not using the RN title on myself and the Dr title on them leads to a more even playing field.

  15. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Elisabeth ‘even playing field’ -you hit the nail on the head. Great point!

  16. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Jannie Now that IS interesting. Thanks for the info!
    @ Glenna Very well put – I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.
    @ Alana *high five* Thanks! I couldn’t agree more.

  17. Kat

    I believe that when you add the whole “Doctor” or “Nurse” title, it creates a certain level of distance between the patient and the professional staff. I mean, we don’t call everyone by their label (“Hello, cashier Bob!”).. It is a technical sign of respect, but puts up its own form of barriers. After all,in reality many doctors DO keep a distinct distance from their patients. (Not all, but a lot prefer the wham-bam-thank-you-mam style of medicine)

    As nurses we pride ourselves on providing support for our patients and creating that close and trustful relationship- so really, by them calling us by our names and not our title, it shows not just professional respect, but also interpersonal.

    Not to compare us to animals, but a perfect correlation is a pet. You don’t call your hamster, “Hamster”. If you love it and care for it, you give it a name. Otherwise, it’s just another rodent, not *Your* pet. (If that makes any sense…)

    On the other hand, I work in a SNF where a few of the residents can’t remember my name on a daily basis. Last Christmas, one of my 90-yr-old “buddies” gave me a card that was titled for “My night nurse”. But in that case, I found it incredibly cute, haha.

  18. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Kat Great point about being interpersonal. I think there can be a healthy balance between professionalism with our personal touch. The labeling IS quite the barrier.

  19. dina

    I’m an Israelie nurse working at a Orthopedic department.
    To the question: I introduce myself to my patients by saying “Hi, I’m Dina and I’ll be your nurse till 15:00 o’clock”. Like you, I enjoy the personal nature of being called by my first name, and it complements the personal nature of my work. As nurses we pride ourselves on providing support for our patients and creating that close and trustful relationship- so really, by them calling us by our names and not our title, it shows not just professional respect, but also interpersonal.

  20. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Dina Very well said. I could not agree more!