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Pronouns and the patient experience: It’s all about respect

Did you know that several languages use words that translate to “How are you called?” when asking someone’s name? It may seem odd to English speakers, but this phrasing alludes to the subtle differences between knowing someone’s given name and how they wish to be called. Understanding how people refer to themselves and want to be addressed is polite, respectful and reflected in cultures and languages throughout the world.

Penn State Health recently added “Preferred Name” and “Pronouns” fields in the electronic medical record system to make it easier for all patient-facing employees to know how to address patients. So far, more than 12,000 patients have included their chosen information, demonstrating the importance of calling patients by their preferred name.

Referring to patients the way they wish to be called is at the core of the Penn State Health patient experience. From registration to checkout, we need to embody our RITE values of Respect, Integrity, Teamwork and Excellence. One of the ways we show our respect for patients is by calling them by their chosen name and pronouns – even if their physical appearance differs from it. Being referred to by the wrong name or addressed in a way that does not reflect the person’s authentic self may make our patients feel disrespected, unwelcome or unsafe. These feelings can impact the level of trust they have in their health care team and Penn State Health as a whole.

Minimizing someone’s identity is often traumatic and unforgettable, especially for adolescent and young adult patients. A recent study presented at the 2023 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition showed that:

  • Most adolescent and young adult patients recognize the importance of being asked about their gender identity, chosen name and pronouns.
  • 70% felt comfortable when asked about their sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • More than 96% of gender-diverse youth expressed a desire to have their chosen name and pronouns indicated within their electronic health record.

Showing this type of respect is not limited to gender issues. For instance, some people use their middle name or a nickname over their given first name. Some physicians may prefer to be called “doctor,” while others prefer that patients and colleagues use their first name.

While mistakes in misnaming or misgendering someone can happen, it is how we respond to those mistakes that matters. We can rely on our HEART of Apology to acknowledge and respond to any missteps.

As Penn State Health continues to work on ways to improve the patient experience, you can support these efforts simply by asking patients how they want to be called, documenting it and sharing the information with the rest of your team. The Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has several resources available to help in the Digital StoreFront.

For more information, contact Caanen Churukha (he/him/his), program manager for disability and inclusion in the Penn State Health Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, at cchurukha@, or Allyson Martin (she/her/hers), intermediate technology educator, Penn State Health Ambulatory Practices Shared Services, and co-chair of the Penn State Health Sexual and Gender Minority Advisory Council, at

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