Addressing Mature, Adult Patients During an Initial Interview

October 7, 2011

Bethsheba Johnson, G.N.P.-B.C., A.A.H.I.V.S.

Bethsheba Johnson, G.N.P.-B.C., A.A.H.I.V.S., is an associate medical director of St. Hope Foundation in Houston, Texas.

Introducing yourself to an older adult as a health care provider requires being sensitive to generational issues. It is not appropriate to address clients by their given or first name without requesting their express permission to do so.

It is respectful, as with any age client, to address them by their full name -- without the use of a title -- and ask how they would like to be addressed in future conversations. I usually introduce myself, then read their name from the medical record and ask them how they would like me to address them. I get many surprised expressions, as if they're thinking, "This health care provider cannot read the name on the medical record!"

Some people actually prefer a title, their full given name, a nickname or their surname. Not everyone wants to be abbreviated, as many Americans are accustomed to doing. People that know me know I use my whole first name and not "Beth." It is a quick way to put us on the wrong footing in a conversation. I love when I'm asked what I prefer.

Earlier this year, one of my colleagues highlighted this observation and advice: During an initial interview with a mature woman from Africa, he was quickly informed by the patient's daughter to address her mother by her title and surname -- Ms. M -- and not by her given name. Being proactive, or complying with how to address the patient, shows a sign of respect and helps the patient feel more comfortable, which in turn allows the patient to fully engage in the provider/client relationship necessary for their health care partnership. It can also prevent a health care provider faux pas by assuming a title that indicates gender, such as the use of "Mr." or "Ms." The client is quite capable of specifying his or her gender.

This observation also includes people that have multiple names as indicated by their culture. Some electronic medical records are not designed to enter the client's whole name. OK, America?! We have to do better with cultural and generational sensitivity.

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