Letters to the Editor
This site is supported by Health ONE
ON FIRST NAME TERMS
A staff nurse whom I knew as a trainee often insisted on calling me Dr Fung despite my protestations that as colleagues and friends, she could do well to call me Daniel. A fellow doctor who trained with me at Woodbridge Hospital asked me how I decided on who I called Dr So-and-so and whom I merely addressed on a first name basis. My answer then was that anyone who was not a consultant and didn’t look too fierce could be called by their first names. Recently, I read of a moving article by a medical student. He recalled a famous eye surgeon who insisted that his students address him on a first name basis. These 3 incidents left me pondering. How should we address our fellow medical colleagues? Many of us come from a generation when the surname was the usual form of address, except among close friends and relatives. As a child, I had nicknames bestowed on me. To my seniors and those who wield power over me, I would call them Sir or Madam. I called my teachers, Sir or Madam, often forgetting what their surnames were. This was further reinforced in National Service. As I started medical school, our lecturers and professors were looked upon with awe. I hardly spoke to them, and when I did, it was with a mousy “Uh…Prof”. I didn’t even dare use the surnames. Only when I started working as a house officer, did some senior colleagues ask me to “loosen up”. “Call me Richard,” and the names became more familiar. It certainly warmed the relationships. I can fondly remember some of the Registrars who left their mark, purely because they dispensed with the formality. I suppose today the first name address is fairly common and some people will tell you they cannot even remember the surnames of their friends. Yet others will warn you against dropping the formalities as it shades professional boundaries. A younger colleague suggested that first name calling would blur the relationship between supervisor and trainee, teacher and student, boss and worker. This in turn would affect the objective appraisal of performance when the situation arises. Yet doctors are often guilty of calling many of their patients by their first names. Isn’t there a need to maintain professional boundaries?
Should there be some rules on name calling in medicine? Certainly for the sake of developing good relationships with our colleagues, we should all consider calling everyone in our department on a first name basis. From the lowly house officer, to the Senior Consultant. After all, being called Dr X simply emphasises your superiority. Yet Singapore is a hierarchical society as most Asian societies are. Seniority and age have a certain premium. I would suggest a balance. Use surnames in formal situations such as when seeing patients, giving a lecture or introducing colleagues. But revert to first names when having departmental meetings, social gatherings and professional “sharing” (as in case presentations etc). For a situation like this to work, the more senior doctors must take the lead. Remember that in the Hippocratic Oath and also in the SMC Physician’s pledge, we are to regard our colleagues as our brothers and sisters, so what is the harm in calling your brothers and sisters by their first names?
DR DANIEL FUNG