Who’s your primary?

As I tramp through medical appointments, I have many interviews by staff people (I have, in fact, memorized my PAMF patient number, quite unintentionally, just from checking to make sure that the paperwork is good) who run through a standard set of questions. After my names, first and last, spelled out, my date of birth, and my insurance carrier comes the question “Who’s your primary?”, meaning ‘Who’s your primary care physician?’ Primary here is a nouning by truncation, a phenomenon I have lots of examples of (and have blogged about fairly often), so there’s nothing especially exciting here. What’s interesting is when the staff frame the question that way, one step further into medical jargon than primary care physician (which is already contextually specialized, used where a non-medical type might say regular doctor or family doctor).

(Note: in the U.S. these days, primary care physicians come from family medicine/practice, internal medicine, and pediatrics; the primary care physician is literally primary, the first doctor a patient will normally see, the doctor who refers patients on to specialists, and the doctor who keeps track of the patient’s care. These doctors used to be called general practitioners, or GPs, and still are in most of the rest of the English-speaking world.)

In any case, printed questionnaires always have the full form of the question. In face-to-face interviews, on the other hand, I always get the truncated version. I assume that comes from the interviewers assessing who I am and what I can be expected to know, and then treating me as to some degree one of them, so that they can use the version they’re most comfortable with.

Of course, they could just be sticking with their truncated jargon, regardless of who they’re talking to. I hope not, because I’d expect a fair number of patients to be unfamiliar with the usage. Possibly someone has recorded interviews and looked at the question.


5 Responses to “Who’s your primary?”

  1. Ellen Says:

    I’m not sure that it’s respect for your knowledge in particular. Even more often than “who’s your primary?” I hear from bored clerks who’ve never met me “what’s your social?” — meaning my Social Security Number, a datum I never provide in a medical context.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Social ‘Social Security number’ was one of the earliest examples in my files of a nouning by truncation that struck people as notable — and it was (and is) used by administrative staff in a variety of fields, not just medicine. In this case, it seems pretty clear that the people who use it no longer see that it’s an in-group usage — for them, it’s just the way you talk about these things — so they have, in effect, obliged the rest of us to accommodate to their usage, at least passively. (I can see myself *using* “SSN” to an administrative type, but not “social”.)

      • Jason Parker-Burlingham Says:

        Somewhat more surprising (to me) was when I was recently asked for “[my] last four” (I was setting up a medical appointment).

        It took me a moment to work out they were asking for the last four digits of my social security number. It struck me as a novel if a bit opaque shortening of “the last four digits of your social security number”.

  2. Bob Richmond Says:

    It’s worse when you’re a physician. Everybody expects that you know the jargon and the acronyms of every specialty. I particularly dislike it when lay people throw obscure acronyms at me that send me to Google.

    I use only the commonest of acronyms in writing surgical pathology reports, which are formidable enough when well written.

    I often interpret surgical pathology reports for patients. I just reviewed a very well written though exceedingly complex report for a patient – 5 pages, single-spaced, wall-to-wall, typed on a monospace typewriter (it was written two days ago).

  3. Truncated lame duck « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] for micropolitan/metropolitan area (here) and primary for primary care physician (here), but sometimes the source is a N + N compound, like greenhouse for greenhouse gases (here) — […]

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