CMS has released a Request for Information on the idea of a national directory of health care providers and services. The announcement notes that such a compilation might “help facilitate care coordination, health information exchange, and data reporting efforts.” They note, “We envision that an NDH [National Directory of Healthcare Providers and Services] could serve as a centralized data hub for providers’ directory and digital contact information, which would contain accurate, up-to-date, and validated data in a publicly accessible index.” On the surface, this seems like a good idea, until one realizes that there have already been efforts to attempt to create a master database.
My current CMS provider records contain a practice address where I haven’t worked since 2011 despite multiple attempts to update it, so I’m not optimistic about efforts to maintain yet another database. It would also be difficult to account for the information for physicians and other providers who work part time at different institutions, which can be common for certain specialties or classifications of physicians. For example, faculty physicians at my academic medical center might have separate practices (complete with separate billing and communications information) at the faculty practice, the residency practice, the hospital service, and the local Veteran’s Affairs clinic. Similarly, many physicians “moonlight” or pick up extra shifts via urgent care or telehealth companies, so that will add to the confusion. The public comment period ends on December 6, so be sure to submit your thoughts.
The concept of patients calling physicians by their first names is always a hot topic in the virtual physician lounge so I was glad to see this research letter published this week in JAMA Network Open. In the introduction, the authors note the sentiments shared by many physicians, that using the title “doctor” helps in “acknowledging the physician-patient relationship, signifying respect for physicians, and following established social norms.” They mention the results of two previous related studies – one that found that almost three out of four physicians were called by their first name, with 61% finding it annoying, and another that found that having “DOCTOR” boldly indicated on ID badges was associated with fewer episodes of misidentification among female physicians and physicians in underrepresented groups. With that background, the authors set about determining the factors associated with use of the physician’s first name in patient portal messages.
The authors performed a retrospective review of patient messages in the Mayo Clinic EHR from October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2021. Natural language processing was used to identify the greeting and/or closing salutation and those phrases were classified according to formality. Patient demographics (age, gender) as well as physician demographics (age, gender, degree, training level, and specialty) were all identified. The authors found that female physicians were twice as likely to be called by their first names after controlling for other factors. Physicians with a DO degree were also more likely to be called by their first name, as were primary care physicians. Interestingly, female patients were less likely to use their physician’s first name. There was no difference based on patient or physician age or physician training level.
The study has a few limitations noted by the authors, including inability to control for physicians who may prefer to be addressed by their first names or for cultural/racial/ethnic nuances in greetings. The dataset was also from a single health system, so might not be applicable to other organizations. It would be interesting to see how these factors play out in different regions across the United States, since there are definitely nuances in how people are addressed regardless of whether they’re physicians or not. I’ve been called everything from “ma’am” to “y’all” to “sweetie” to “hey yo” to things that are not fit to print while practicing my physician trade, so I’m guessing there might be variation on professional titles as well. I’m currently following a thread in a CMIO group about patient portal messages and which state might best exemplify “upper Midwest nice,” so there’s definitely a physician perception of regional variability.
The authors note that “whether being informally addressed by other medical professionals or patients, untitling (not using a person’s proper title) 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.” They go on to state that organizations need to focus on a supportive culture and that guidelines, practice changes, or patient education may be needed. The idea of lack of respect is a common sentiment around the virtual water cooler, but times are changing and, at least in the US, social norms feel far more casual than they did a decade ago. I’ll be interested to see what kinds of comments might be added to the article since it’s so new. Responses have been mixed on several platforms that have posted articles referencing the study.
Regardless of title, role, or status, it’s always a good idea to ask people what they prefer to be called, and to discuss if you feel the need to call someone something different than what they request. I’ve worked with seasoned nurses who actively struggle with the idea of calling physicians by their first names even when asked to do so, and in those cases I’m not about to force the issue. Similarly, I wouldn’t dream of calling an adult patient by their first name without their permission, and am happy to note individual preferences on the patient chart. Half the time I refer to pediatric patients by formal titles just to make them laugh since they’ve likely never been called “young Master Johnson” or “my dear Miss Jones,” and it’s fun to watch their faces. I rotated in the UK many years ago and did enjoy the certain level of formality at my practice site where everyone referred to each other as “Nurse Thompson” and “Dr. Jones” and “Trainee Jayne,” but I don’t know if that style has remained.
Does your organization have a policy on title use, or is it anything goes? Leave a comment or email me.
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