On average, primary care providers and internists see approximately 85 to 90 patients per week, sometimes even more. Not surprisingly, it can be nearly impossible to link a name in a chart to an actual patient. If you can’t remember patient names—or have even given up trying—you aren’t alone.
Beth Boynton, RN, a communications specialist who teaches nurses and physicians ways to improve patient-provider relationships, says name recall is important and not just for patient safety. “The other reason names are important is because of the relationship piece—and that often gets dismissed,” Boynton says. “If you remember someone’s name, they’re going to feel like you’re paying attention to them and that you care about them. They’re more than a diagnosis.”
Why are names so hard to remember, anyway? Gary Small, MD, professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior says it’s pretty much an issue of distraction. “When you meet someone, there is a lot of sensory input, a lot of information coming in in the moment. You get distracted and you don’t take the time to learn the name,” Small explains. “It’s not just remembering names, it’s linking the name to the face, making that connection. We all have a challenge with that.”
Small is also the director of the UCLA Longevity Center, which offers memory education programs and trains qualified educators to provide similar programs across the US and internationally.
Small shared with Clinical Practice Today his “Look, Snap, Connect” method to improve name recall:
- Look: Focus your attention on remembering the patient’s name—distraction is the main reason for failing to remember names.
- Snap: Take a mental snapshot of someone’s name—this leverages the brain’s natural ability to remember visually.
- Connect: Link those mental snapshots so that they have meaning. “When something becomes meaningful, it becomes memorable,” Small says.
Small explains how linking distinguishing features with names might work in real life. “Let’s say you meet someone named Mr. Foreman and you notice he has a prominent forehead. That association makes it easier to link his name to his face. Or maybe I meet a guy named Harry who happens to have a lot of hair.”
Boynton teaches a similar technique in the workshops she leads to help participants remember each other’s names. Each person uses the first letter of their name to pick an adjective to describe themselves. “So, as an example, I might be Beautiful Beth,” she says. Using this technique, Boynton has also had workshop participants learn and recite a whole A to Z alphabet worth of objects, from “awful apples” to “xenophobic zebras.” In clinical practice, clinicians can adapt this method to remember patient or colleague names.
Small offers some other tips and tricks he’s found useful:
- If someone has a complex name, ask them to spell it out for you and try to see the name in your mind’s eye.
- Repetition is a useful memory technique—say the person’s name several times during the conversation.
- If you meet someone who reminds you of someone else, visualize them standing next to one another.
- Similarly, if someone has the same name or similar features to a famous person, associate them with that famous person.
- If permitted, take a photo of the patient or their driver’s license and keep it in the chart. This is especially helpful when talking to patients on the phone to link faces with names.
Boynton also emphasizes the importance of spending a few moments getting to know something about a patient besides their medical condition, which can automatically help in name recall. “Plato said, ‘All learning has an emotional base,’ so finding a way to have a quick connection that is beyond the clinical is helpful,” says Boynton.
Finally, Small emphasizes that practice is important and improves both objective and subjective memory performance. “Training yourself to remember names is a bit like learning a language,” he says. “I recommend starting slow. In the beginning, set your goal at recalling maybe one, then two names each day. You will eventually build up your own mental vocabulary for connecting names and faces.”