Once entrenched in adulthood, there are very few of us who aren't delighted to hear our age underestimated by a few years. But while these compliments and their related terms of endearment seem harmless, they can chip away at the respect that is an important part of patient care.

When my mother was in the hospital a few years ago, her stay was long enough that every nurse, tech and respiratory therapist on the floor had tended to her multiple times. One nurse repeatedly addressed her as "Kiddo." As in: "Let me help you up, Kiddo." It was meant with kindness, but it sounded patronizing. Finally, one day, my father leaped in front of the nurse before she entered my mother's room and whispered, "Her name is Mrs. Jeffries, not Kiddo." The nurse seemed genuinely surprised at the correction.

These tendencies don't necessarily stop outside patient rooms. After my 6-year-old took a bad fall, we went to the emergency department to make sure he didn't have a concussion or broken nose. Everyone we encountered was gentle and thorough. But in our last encounter with a physician, he told us "one of the girls" would be in shortly with some ointment and discharge instructions. One of the girls? We hadn't seen any girls during our stay, just nurses and X-ray techs who happened to be female.

Although these are tiny mistakes, they matter to patients, and I bet they matter to nurses who are called "girls" by a patient who learned that it was OK to do so from a physician. These slipups have a way of piling up to form a culture in which respect is rare rather than widespread. And like much of organizational culture, it can start or stop with the board, where good governance isn't likely to thrive without respect for those around the table.