Background: Widely used models for teaching and assessing communication skills highlight the importance of greeting patients appropriately, but there is little evidence regarding what constitutes an appropriate greeting.
Methods: To obtain data on patient expectations for greetings, we asked closed-ended questions about preferences for shaking hands, use of patient names, and use of physician names in a computer-assisted telephone survey of adults in the 48 contiguous United States. We also analyzed an existing sample of 123 videotaped new patient visits to characterize patterns of greeting behavior in everyday clinical practice.
Results: Most (78.1%) of the 415 survey respondents reported that they want the physician to shake their hand, 50.4% want their first name to be used when physicians greet them, and 56.4% want physicians to introduce themselves using their first and last names; these expectations vary somewhat with patient sex, age, and race. Videotapes revealed that physicians and patients shook hands in 82.9% of visits. In 50.4% of the initial encounters, physicians did not mention the patient's name at all. Physicians tended to use their first and last names when introducing themselves.
Conclusions: Physicians should be encouraged to shake hands with patients but remain sensitive to nonverbal cues that might indicate whether patients are open to this behavior. Given the diversity of opinion regarding the use of names, coupled with national patient safety recommendations concerning patient identification, we suggest that physicians initially use patients' first and last names and introduce themselves using their own first and last names.