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18 May 2020

My parents taught me as a child that every door has a handle and to open that door you must use the handle. This was their metaphor for insisting that we always use the proper names of all the neighbours and friends that came around to our house for drinks or dinner parties. It is this ‘handle’ or name that acknowledges and respects a person’s identity.

Affording somebody the proper name and a title such as Mr or Mrs furthers respect and reverence. We should always ask others how they would like to be addressed. Unfortunately, I still hear the names of patients being abbreviated by staff. I remember a consultant trainer being incensed at being infantilised by being called ‘Dicky’ when he was a patient. ‘Mr O’Regan’ when used by my trainees feels uncomfortable to me - I encourage people to call me David and reflect that I am only comfortable with a few people calling me Dave. I do encourage all my trainees to call me David but some, perhaps with different cultural upbringings, tell me that they are not comfortable calling me by my first name. I am okay with that but the invitation is there.

We should always use people’s preferred and proper names, be they patients, trainees or colleagues. A person’s name is their ‘id’ - a basic need that is a handle to who a person is; their qualities, beliefs, values etc. and that distinguishes that person as unique. All our patients and trainees deserve to be called by the name they prefer – a recognition of them as a person. This is particularly important in theatres where we encourage first names only on the white board, with the individual expert role clearly defined.

Identity is essentially about being ‘who.’ This is where I believe the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist is missing a trick and is poorly used – it is ‘who’ is on the operating table and ‘who’ is helping you that is most important. We start the checklist by introducing first names. We also ask if anyone is troubled by anything: on one occasion an ODP took me aside to tell me that they were due to attend a disciplinary committee that afternoon and might lose their job because they had taken too much sick leave to look after their ailing child. How can we expect people to be on their game if distracted? Our staff and trainees have identities and their ‘who’ might be also be burdened.

People – patients and trainees – have beliefs, perspectives, and opinions. They too have friends, family who love them and they too have hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities. We all need to feel respected, appreciated, and valued. We all pray for peace, joy, and happiness. As doctors and trainers, we should recognise and respect the whole self.

Preserve and respect that identity – tread carefully and with discretion, but at all times appreciate, celebrate and enjoy the uniqueness of our identities.


About the author:

David O ReganDavid O'Regan is the Director of the Faculty of Surgical Trainers. He has been a Consultant adult Cardiac Surgeon in Leeds since 2001.

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