“They Call Us Doctor, and We Call Them By Their Names”

Just stumbled on a blog post written by a first-year resident who calls himself “Anonymous Doc.” He raises a good question about why nurses and doctors are referred to in such different ways:

I don’t think I’ve talked about this before, but the doctor/nurse divide is weird. One of my intern friends called me the other night and said there’s a nurse he likes, and in theory wants to ask her out, but doesn’t think he should. It would be awkward, he’s like her superior… he doesn’t feel comfortable doing anything. And maybe he’s right. But the whole dynamic is weird. They call us doctor, and we call them by their names– and sometimes not even. At one of the hospitals, there’s this strange custom where the nurses all go by Miss or Mister and their first names. So I’m Dr. Lastname and they’re Miss Jenny or Mister Steve. It’s bizarre. Miss Jenny sounds like a kindergarten teacher. Maybe. And some of the residents use these names when they talk about the nurses to each other, like– “did you give the order to Miss Amber?” “did you tell Miss Jeanette?” Are we children? I feel like we’re colleagues, and we should all just call each other by our first names. Like colleagues do. Patients can call us Dr. Whatever, but I don’t feel like I need the nurses to treat me like a superior, and I also don’t want to treat them like they’re my nursery school teacher.

By Jeff Lowe, via Flickr

This writer sounds like a pretty fair, sensible person. What’s your take: are nurses demeaned by the names used to refer to them in the hospital?

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2016-11-21T13:20:10+00:00 January 15th, 2010|career|9 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Peggy McDaniel January 19, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    This is an interesting topic. Lots of good points made above such as some of this behavior being somewhat regional. Being from the West Coast, I always tend to be a bit more informal. I loved being called Ms. Peggy while working as a traveller in the Caribbean. Most of the younger nurses were referred to as Ms. (first name) and the older nurses as Ms. (last name). As a pediatric nurse on the mainland, I usually just introduced myself and expected to be called by my first name. I worked at many peds hospitals and what I called the doctor really depended on my relationship with them and/or hospital culture. This certainly has spurred quite a few comments!

  2. Karen Kelly January 18, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    As a young nurse, I expected docs to address me formally (Ms. LastName) since I addressed them formally. As an experienced nurse with a doctoral degree, I also expected the physicians to address me as “Dr. LastName” if I was expected to address them formally. This rarely a problem when I was in hospital administration. The expections were a couple of guys who I knew since high school who expected me to address them formally, but wanted to call me by my first name.

  3. nursemoffa January 18, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Whoa! This has always been a charged topic for me. When I first started working with physicians they were old enough to be my father, so I didn’t mind calling them “Dr.” while I was just Christine. As I got older and the residents seemed to be getting younger and younger and attendings were my age, I really started to find it degrading. I eventually started to introduce myself as “Nurse Moffa”, (even AJN staff call me that sometimes!)

    I think it’s a product of how we’re taught in school as well as the culture of the facility. In my nursing program it we were discouraged from introducing ourselves with first and last names and a handshake. In addition, several nurse managers I’ve come across also allow physicians to address them by their first name but will use titles when addressing the docs.

    I’ve seen some schools start to change this; I hope it will be the norm soon.

  4. Gail Pfeifer January 17, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Naming conventions do matter, and nurses should determine how they want to be addressed, whether by first name, or Mr, Mrs, etc. Here is my rule of thumb: I use a title address when talking to people I do not know or have not been introduced to (especially when writing to them), because yes, everyone deserves respect, including patients. If the title isn’t clear, I say Ms or Mr, and wait to be corrected. I introduce myself as Gail Pfeifer to colleagues (that includes Joe or Jane the doctor). If they respond by calling me Gail, then it’s “Joe” or “Jane” from me from then on. The culture you work in, as Jeremy points out above, should be respected or changed if it’s perceived as demeaning. Everything works better in context!

  5. jb January 16, 2010 at 1:04 am

    Just be adult about it introduce your self as to what you want people to call you if you introduce your self as ben I will call you that if you introduce your self as dr.ben i will call you that! I dont read minds or egos

  6. Shawn Kennedy January 16, 2010 at 12:59 am

    So Steve, don’t nurses work hard to earn their professional titles? Don’t we all deserve respect?
    It works both ways, I think – we all go by first names or we all go by title: Dr Smith and Nurse Jones (or Ms or Mr Jones).

  7. Steve January 15, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    I have no problem with calling a Dr “Dr.___” .They have worked hard for their professional title and deserve repsect. I can understand being a little more casual with new residents, but giving respect gets you respect.

  8. Angela January 15, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I would not expect to call a physician by Dr._____ if I were working with him/her on a long term basis, ESPECIALLY if s/he were in my age or peer group.

  9. Jeremy January 15, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    So, I can offer insight from the nurse side. I think the Mr., Miss/Mrs. title is a location thing, the south is big on this. None of the Docs would call me Mr. Jeremy in any seriousness. I call attendings Dr. Lastname or just their last name. e.g. Dr. Smith, Smith. Med students up to fellows get called by their first name/nickname. Do not take the attitude of not asking a nurse out because you are “superior” Chances are she is more superior and will let you know as such. I’ve been a nurse 5 years and have worked Philly to Florida so any if any advice is needed let me know.

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