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A doctor’s attire – what works best?

Lab CoatsDoes what your doctor wear matter to you? You may simply want your doctor to be competent and compassionate, but a recent article in The Atlantic points out some subtle issues in the effects a doctor’s dress may have. Most people seem to prefer “formal” to “casual,” but the author recalls being put off by a well-coiffed female doctor dressed in a smart business suit. But if there’s such a thing as too formal, a doctor in cut-off shorts and a tee isn't likely to get too many repeat patients either.

I’m pregnant and I have a toddler, so I’ve had more than the average number of visits to the doctor in the past couple of years. I also like clothes and notice what people are wearing, but even I had to stop and think about what, if anything, I remembered about what my OB/GYN or my daughter’s pediatrician (both women) wore during recent visits. Mostly I remember slacks and simple blouses, or in the unforgiving summer heat typical in this area, something a little lighter. My daughter’s pediatrician also has a couple of small Disney character toys attached to her name tag to entertain the youngest patients.

There’s a middle ground that doctors have to strike that may be tricky depending on their specialty, their hospital or clinic’s dress codes (Mayo Clinic requires all docs to dress in a business suit) among other things. And that’s not even considering the issue of how a doctor’s clothes can spread infectious disease. From the article:

The definition of what counts as professional clothing is also in flux, thanks to increasing knowledge of infectious risks. Earlier this year, the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology Association (SHEA) published new guidelines for healthcare-personnel attire in hospital settings. Their goal was to balance the need for professional appearance with the obligation to minimize potential germ transmission via clothing and other doodads like ID badges and jewelry and neckties that might touch body parts or bodily fluids. The SHEA investigators' take-home points regarding infection: White coats should be washed weekly, at the minimum; neckties should be clipped in place (70 percent of doctors in two studies admitted to having never had a tie cleaned); and institutions should strongly consider a “bare below the elbow” (BBE) policy, meaning short sleeves and no wristwatches or jewelry. Although the impact on reducing the risk of infections remains to be determined, it’s considered potentially significant enough that a number of countries have adopted BBE requirements for all clinicians. (And it leaves me wondering: When will the Mayo clinic update its dress code to short-sleeved business suits?)

The other factor doctors have to consider is that the “business casual” that I’ve seen on most doctors may need to be upgraded for more formal meetings - something I'd never considered as a patient. Again from the article:

Last week, two days in a row, I ran into a colleague who’s a pediatrician. The first day, she wore a beige pantsuit (I’d label it formal, or business) and looked fairly corporate. I wondered to myself if she realized that her clothes were sending a message to her patients, a message that indicated that her medical practice was a business and that she wielded the power. The next day, she wore a loose-fitting knee-length navy dress (professional informal, perhaps, or smart casual). I asked her if she had seen patients the first day. She had not; it was a day of meetings, and when I told her I was writing about doctors’ clothing, she laughed. “When you’re seeing patients,” she said, “you have to look like you’re not afraid to get dirty.”

I’m not sure how I would have reacted if at our first appointment our pediatrician had worn a formal business suit. At the very least, I would have felt under-dressed (jeans and tees are my de facto uniform these days), but I would have likely judged her as cool or somehow distant, not suited to working with kids. Which may prove nothing, but only hint that that the best attire is the kind that your patients don't notice.

Previously: NY bill proposes banning white coats, ties for doctors
Photo by Pi

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