Do white coats make us better doctors?

It is 80 degrees in the exam rooms.  The air conditioner is broken and despite calling and alerting our clients, almost none of them want to reschedule.  I finish writing up a chart in the treatment room where the air conditioner from the kennels still has some influence.  Despite the temporary respite from the heat, my skin is still glistening with a thin layer of perspiration.  I look sullenly at the white coat that I had shucked as soon as I was out of eyesight of the nearest client.

I could go see the next patient without it.  Lots of doctors don’t wear white coats.  In fact, there is an ever increasing movement away from wearing then.  The reasoning goes like this: White coats are dirty.  They harbor bacteria which could be transferred from one patient to the next.  There are currently no studies to validate the assumption that wearing a white coat increases infection rates, but it does make sense.  Doctors who adhere to this reasoning advocate for a bare below the elbows approach to dressing.  There’s also concern that white coats reinforce outdated hierarchies in medicine and act as a barrier to team unity.

And yet, reluctantly, I shrug the coat back on.  You see, as much as I try to get behind team “no white coat,” I just can’t.

Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, and as unfortunate as it is, we still live in a society where a woman’s perceived ability is tied in with her physical appearance.  Studies show that women who wear makeup are seen as more likeable, trustworthy and competent. If we want to be seen as professionals, it’s important that we look like professionals.  So, I make sure I’ve got my white coat along with my full face of make-up when I head to work.

Maybe it’s because I look young for my age.  I still, eight years out, sometimes greet a new client who is certain that I’m too young to be a doctor.  Wearing a white coat reinforces that I am in fact the doctor and helps me to look more mature.

Maybe it’s because I’m a veterinarian, and there are still those who think vets aren’t real doctors.  I assure you I am as real a doctor as any other out there — and I have the white coat to prove it.

All of the above are valid reasons.  We need clients to trust us and people trust doctors more when they’re wearing a white coat.  They are more open and honest about confidential medical information with a doctor they feel is professionally dressed.  In medicine, patient history is essential.  If our clients don’t trust us enough to confide in us, we might miss out on a vital piece of the diagnostic puzzle.

But when it comes down to it, the main reason I still come down on the side of the white coat is that as confident as I am in my medical knowledge, bedside manner, and overall doctoring abilities, without my white coat on, I feel just a little bit less of a vet.

It’s crazy, I know.  An article of clothing holds no power over how smart, competent, and knowledgeable a person is …

Or does it?

Turns out, studies have shown that it does.  People associate wearing a white coat with attentiveness and carefulness.  When asked to wear a doctor’s white coat, people performed better on tasks associated with these traits than when they were not wearing it, or when they were told it was a painter’s coat.

What we wear has a significant impact on the way we are perceived by others and by ourselves.  For now, a white coat is still seen as a symbol of medicine; one that plays an important role in transforming us from Joe Shmoe on the street to doctor. I hope one day the bare below the elbows crowd can succeed in changing perceptions of doctor’s attire to something a little more practical. Until then, I still believe that my white coat makes me more confident and respected by clients, and that makes me a better doctor.

Lauren B. Smith is a veterinarian.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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