Nethmi Vithanage: What’s in a name?

I consider myself a global citizen. My country of birth is different to my nationality on my passport, which again is different to its place of issue, which again is different to where I currently reside. I have resident visas for five countries across three continents and currently, I am a foundation doctor working in the UK. My potential ethnicities have included Indian, Mauritian, Maori, South African, Maldivian and Fijian. It’s the dark skin combined with a New Zealand twang that confuses people and leads to the frequently asked question “where’s your name from?”.

My name is six letters long with two syllables. The exact same as Steven, Hannah, or Denise, but it is an arrangement of letters that is far from common. If your name is a foreign one then you’ll know “the look.” It’s the scrunching of the eyebrows, the slightly longer pause, and the tilting of the head. The exact same look that always precedes your name being called. Teachers during roll-call, nurses before triage, and flight attendants during boarding. It’s a universal look and most of the time I put them out of their misery by volunteering to pronounce it first.

And I completely understand the “look” and the mispronunciation. It is difficult to know how to say things you’ve never heard before and it has never bothered me. It simply was not something I had paid much attention to… until in a previous place of work, where I learnt the importance of knowing names.

I had introduced myself to all staff, I had signed my name on countless discharge letters, I have a NHS badge with my name on it, and all my entries have my name both on the side and at the bottom—and yet, apart from a handful of individuals, the majority of people I worked with did not know my name. I have always made it a point to learn people’s names. It shows you’ve made an effort to get to know them. A name is your identity, it’s your personal tag, and your unique code in a world full of 7 billion people.

Surely if one can pronounce Levetiracetam, then there is no reason for the “Sorry I can’t remember your name but can you prescribe this” before pushing a chart in my face, or for the “no one by that name works here” when a colleague rings the ward, or for the awkward pause at the other end of the telephone when they bleep me and I answer by name, and then have to add on that I’m the FY for the ward they’re calling from.

Communication, partnership, and teamwork is a key domain in GMC’s Good Medical Practice (1). Good patient care stems from a team that works well together and respects one another. It involves acknowledging members of the team, their presence, and contribution to the team. But does teamwork involve knowing each other’s names? Will the system break down simply because we fail to address one another by name?

Perhaps not.

However, I feel that knowing the names of the members of your team contributes to creating a much more positive working environment. It makes individuals feel included and is a subtle affirmation of their role within a bigger, more complicated system. It fosters a more open relationship among co-workers and leads to effective communication. And needless to say, effective communication is imperative for providing good healthcare.

So, an apparent banal action of learning someone’s name can make a significant difference—and in the NHS, any contribution towards making a difference goes a long way.

Nethmi Vithanage is a Foundation Year doctor. 

This article is not aimed at any individual in particular and it is not the intention of the author to offend anyone. It is purely a reflective account intended for use as a learning experience.


1. General Medical Council. General Medical Council. [Online].; 2016 [cited 2016 November 5. Available from: Domain 3: Communication, partnership and teamwork.