Patients care about what their doctors are wearing. A BMJ Open study published in May found that attire impacts how patients perceive care.
In the largest study of its kind, over half of over 4,000 patients surveyed said what physicians wear is important to them. One-third said attire influenced their satisfaction with the care they receive.
Participants were asked to rate providers pictured in a variety of clinical settings and outfits on various attributes, including trustworthiness and intelligence.
The traditional white coat paired with formal dress was the most highly rated outfit. Patients preferred to see doctors in scrubs or a combination of scrubs and a white coat in the emergency room and in surgery.
White coat vs. BBE
While the white coat is the traditional physician garb, some physicians are beginning to lean towards the bare below the elbows (BBE) movement. A 2017 study found health care providers wearing long sleeves were more likely to have transferable contaminations on their sleeves and wrists. They were also less likely to wash their wrists when they washed their hands if they were wearing long-sleeved coats.
Physicians should opt for a sleeveless vest over scrubs or a short-sleeved shirt instead of the traditional white coat, suggests Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine’s magazine. Vests have several pockets for easy storage and abide by BBE requirements while still looking uniform. Focusing on patient safety, the publication outlined the do’s and don’t’s of physician apparel.
In favor of the white coat
“I’m not opposed to physicians taking off their white coats in the office as they see appropriate, but it still sends a loud message about who we are and what we stand for in medicine,” says Anita Showalter, DO, associate dean at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences.
Dr. Showalter still wears a white coat. She says she usually tears up a bit when she sees medical students receive their coats at the school’s annual White Coat Ceremony because it’s a significant rite of passage.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the White Coat Ceremony, which started at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
In the emergency department at her hospital, a man once pulled a knife on Chris Giesa, DO, president of the American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians. It was her white coat that saved her from injury.
“I always wear a white coat,” Dr. Giesa says. “When I jumped back, it was my sleeve that got caught on my blade, not my arm, so I was very fortunate.”
Opting out of the white coat
In his first couple of years in practice as an internal medicine and hospice and palliative care specialist, Richard Thacker, DO, assistant dean at Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine, wore a white coat. He then took off the coat and started wearing just a tie. Eventually he took off the tie and some days would even wear just a polo shirt.
“Professionalism can be projected by what you wear, but at some point, when you’ve established your professionalism and an atmosphere of trust, what you wear is less prominent,” Dr. Thacker says.
During his years of operating a private family medicine practice, David Garza, DO, rarely wore his white coat.
“I don’t feel like I need it to telegraph to the world who I am,” Dr. Garza says.
However, Dr. Garza began a new position this year as the family medicine residency program director of Laredo Medical Center in Texas. In the new role, he’ll be wearing his white coat more.