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A question of identity

27 May 2021
Volume 30 · Issue 10


Sam Foster, Chief Nurse, Oxford University Hospitals, reflects on a deceptively simple project to ensure patients are called by their preferred name, and why it matters


I came across a blog by Edward Leigh, the director of the Center for Healthcare Communication in the USA, in which he addressed the habit that some health professionals have of addressing patients by nicknames or terms of endearment. He pointed out how offended many patients are by this:

‘The lyrics to Janet Jackson's song, Nasty, includes this line, “No, my first name ain't baby, it's Janet. Ms. Jackson if you're nasty.” Miss Jackson doesn't like being called, “baby,” and neither do a lot of patients.’

Leigh, 2013

Terms he highlighted such as ‘baby’ and ‘honey’ may be less commonly heard in the UK but we have our equivalents—‘dearie’, for example. He concluded that our names represent the essence of who we are and for that reason it is vital that we correctly address patients and their family members. From a very early age, our identity is tied to our names, and names tied up with our identity. If you think about all the people you know, you no doubt have friends, family or colleagues who are known routinely by names different from their formal first name. Young people may be known by a nickname, while there are plenty of elderly relatives or others who for one reason or another would never be known in a public domain by the first name that would appear on their NHS record.

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