Atrainability Blog

Here we share some thoughts, insights and ideas related to Human Factors Training

What’s in a name?

In our everyday lives, people are typically polite to each other. At social events, we carry out personal introductions a matter of course.

So why is this behaviour not the norm in healthcare?

When working with healthcare teams that are sometimes experiencing challenges with safe team workings, we often observe a reluctance to introduce ourselves by name - especially our given first name.

When I joined my first airline employer in 1971 that was indeed the case.

The Captain was always addressed as Captain or Sir, on and off the aircraft.

I still vividly remember my first BOAC flight as a very lowly second officer under training. The Captain was a very senior manager and trainer, and he exacerbated the situation by referring to me to his chums in the bar in Manhattan as 'one of those bloody cadets still wet behind the ears'. What an excellent example to set.

It was an example I chose as a model of what not to do when I finally achieved Command 18 years later.

Furthermore, I made a point of never introducing colleagues as 'my First Officer' or 'My Cabin Crew'. These are professional people in their own right and deserve all the respect associated with it.

This is an important issue because failure to use given names in the workplace can create a significant barrier to people speaking up when they have doubts about safety.

Why would any professional want to place an additional block to open communication, especially if someone's' life could be at stake?

I met one senior clinician in the last few months who looked with abject horror when I suggested they make a point of introducing themselves by first name at a pre-surgery huddle! "I really don't think I could do that", she said! Why on earth not?!

The unit in question has an appalling staff attitude survey result, a string of 'Never-Events' and 'near-misses', a high sickness rate and high staff turnover. Go figure!

The excellent Rob Hackett in Australia had the astonishingly simple idea a while back of putting name and job title on his theatre hat. This has become known as 'the theatre cap challenge'. Odd isn't it that it should even be regarded as a 'challenge'!

It's quite amusing to hear all the excuses why people can't adopt this simple practice of the theatre cap challenge in their own unit.

Infection risk? Well, there is a chap out there making them integral in theatre caps. You could invest in a few to get you through the week if you like your own personalised hat.

Power is granted, respect is earned.

We must not forget either that using titles can help in difficult situations.

As an airline captain, there were many occasions where a colleague referring to me as Captain Dale was useful to re-establish appropriate hierarchy in front of passengers or an engineer.

The other week I was delivering a talk in Bath, to a room of around 100 healthcare professionals, ranging from medical students to retired senior consultants.

When I reached the end of my talk, I asked how people in the room felt about using first names? I explained that when you have to think about titles and ranks, you are creating an additional barrier to someone helping you out when you need them the most.

I don't mind if you introduce yourself as Professor John Smith, but I prefer if you call me Professor Smith. This might not be as beneficial as working on a first names basis, but it sure beats the all too common introduction, "We all know each other don't we?" which equates to "You all know me, don't you? .. and you don't matter".

Do get in touch to discuss how our human factors training for critical teams can help you maintain and enhance safety.

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