The name game: Ms. Murphy, age 82, becomes Helen in this clinic


When it comes to professional courtesy with veterinary clients, how comfortable is too comfortable?

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Dr. Jim Kidd ran a tight ship. He owned a clinic with four doctors, 10 technicians, five receptionists and an office manager. Excellent veterinary care and professionalism was the mission he lived by. He took pride in himself and his staff for acting in a professional manner at all times. This is why he was taken aback when a longtime client, 82-year-old Helen Murphy, asked to speak privately to him before her next visit.

She stepped into Dr. Kidd's office and asked if he would indulge her while she described a recent scenario to him. Ms. Murphy had arrived at the clinic some weeks earlier for an appointment with Fluffy. She confessed that she loved her Fluffy more than several of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As usual, the waiting room had been full when the pair arrived at the clinic, but things were running smoothly. About 10 minutes after Ms. Murphy arrived and checked in, a young technician called to her and said, “Helen, would you and Fluffy like to step into exam room four?”

Ms. Murphy then told Dr. Kidd about another recent experience with family. Not too long ago, her granddaughter had brought her friend Jane to their family home. Jane was introduced to Ms. Murphy and said, “It's very nice to meet you, Ms. Murphy.” A week or so later Ms. Murphy was shopping at the mall when a young woman approached her and said, “Hi, Ms. Murphy, do you remember me? I'm Jane, a friend of your granddaughter's.” The two women exchanged pleasantries and moved on.

Dr. Kidd was being patient, but he wondered what the point was of this story. Ms. Murphy said the technician who assisted her during her recent clinic visit was, in fact, her granddaughter's friend Jane. Yet when greeting her, Jane had felt comfortable calling her “Helen” when she escorted her to the exam room.

"It was ‘Ms. Murphy' when visiting my home. It was ‘Ms. Murphy' when greeting me in the mall. Why was it ‘Helen' at your clinic?" she asked. “Let me ask you, Dr. Kidd, what would you think of a 22-year-old acquaintance going up to your grandmother and simply addressing her by her first name?"

Dr. Kidd explained that he wanted his clients to feel welcome and comfortable. He certainly never intended this encounter to be a sign of disrespect. Ms. Murphy said she had great respect for Dr. Kidd and his staff. She did recommend, however, that the safest way to address clients would be in what she called a "business formal fashion." If at some point the client mentioned that he or she wanted to be addressed more casually, that could be taken into consideration.

They parted ways on good terms. Dr. Kidd had never encountered a request of this nature from any of his clients before. He definitely would note on Ms. Murphy's record how she would like to be addressed. That said, he decided he would have his team maintain the practice of addressing clients casually, because in the long run, he thought his patrons would experience a warmer and more personal attachment to the practice.

Do you agree with Dr. Kidd? Let us know at

Rosenberg's response

Sometimes we have to accept the fact that we don't always think things through. I know personally that when I see an 80-plus-year-old client I always use the salutation of “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Ms.” This is how I was raised. Colleagues might cite a desire for a warmer, more personal approach like Dr. Kidd, but I could not disagree more.

We are professionals, and addressing both colleagues and clients in a professional manner will serve us in the long run. Veterinarians need this arm's-length client relationship in order to communicate efficiently. When we interact with clients on an informal basis and find ourselves having to deliver tragic information, make awkward financial requests or simply say no, the task becomes much more difficult.

Of course, all rules have exceptions according to our discretion. Nevertheless, defaulting to professional client interactions as opposed to “socially casual” communication will allow patient care to encounter fewer bumps down the road.

Marc Rosenberg, VMD, is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. In his private time, he enjoys playing basketball and swing dancing with his wife. Although many of the scenarios Dr. Rosenberg describes are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.

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