And there is little research to address the issue head on. A previous study, published in 2000, surveyed doctors and found that three quarters of them said some patients addressed them by their first name. But little else was available in the medical literature, and looking at emails offered a novel approach. The medical center supplied Dr. Yang and his colleagues with a trove of email exchanges, allowing analysis of 29,498 messages from 14,958 patients sent from Oct. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2021.
The changing behavior they saw in the emails differs from even the recent past when it was all but unheard-of to call doctors by their first names, notes Jonathan Moreno, a professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. He saw it in his own family, he added.
“My father was a psychiatrist with his own sanitarium in Beacon, N.Y., where I grew up,” he said. “Patients, their families, staff, townspeople never addressed him as anything but Dr. or referred to him as ‘the doctor.’ I don’t remember my parents ever referring to his colleagues or their own caregivers as anything but doctor, unless they were close friends.”
Popular culture of the 1960s and ’70s reflected that tradition, Dr. Moreno noted, with medical dramas like “Dr. Kildare,” which involved a young intern — Dr. Kildare — and his mentor, Dr. Gillespie. There also was the popular drama “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” starring a kindly family doctor whose patients always called him Dr. Welby but who called patients by their first names. That television tradition seems to be “one of the few that survived into the 21st century,” Dr. Moreno said.
Doctors may not enjoy the real world’s tilt toward informality. The survey in 2000 showed that 61 percent were annoyed when patients addressed them by their first name.
Their annoyance makes sense, said Debra Roter, an emeritus professor of health, behavior and society at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. Using a first name can violate the boundary between doctor and patient.
“Doctors might find it is undermining their authority,” Dr. Roter said. “There’s a familiarity that first names gives people.”