What should physicians look like? Should it matter?

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I don’t remember her name, but I do remember her light brown hair, the simple nose ring that looped out of her left nostril, and the calm and centered presence she had with patients. She came across as unassuming, professional, and caring. We were both in medical school, though she was two years behind me. I admired how she treated people.

I don’t remember his name, but I do remember that he worked as a nephrologist (kidney specialist). He had a slight paunch and frequently wore dress shirts with short sleeves. The knots of his neckties were always loose. Students regarded him as an excellent teacher who revealed the mysteries of the kidney with tireless enthusiasm.

The nephrologist and I, among others, taught a course for junior medical students. Someone praised the bedside manner of this calm and centered medical student. The nephrologist interjected, “That might be true, but she doesn’t look professional. It’s the nose ring. Physicians shouldn’t have nose rings.”

I didn’t say anything in response. He was still an attending physician, and I was just a medical student. His comment struck me: Did it really matter what doctors look like?

I have thought about that snippet over the years. Did he ever give her that feedback? If he did, how did she take it? Did anyone else find his remark curious? Did any of the other attending physicians disagree with him? If they did, why didn’t they speak up?

After I became an attending physician and navigated ongoing perceptions of what I “should” look like, more questions have come to mind:

What if the medical student was a white male and had a nose ring? Would the nephrologist have made that comment? (Probably?)

What if the medical student was a stellar student and demonstrated clinical excellence? (My impression is that she did well in her coursework and that the comment about her nose ring was in the vein of, “If only she didn’t have the nose ring …”)

What if the medical student wore the nose ring for cultural reasons? Would that have mattered to the nephrologist?

What if the nephrologist learned that certain populations of patients were more likely to trust her than with him because of the nose ring?

What did the nephrologist think doctors should look like? (Clearly, he did not think they should wear nose rings.) How did he learn what doctors should look like? Who determined the definition of “professional” in the world of medicine?

Did it really matter what doctors look like? To medical students, of course, it did. When we started our clinical rotations, we saw the attire of resident and attending physicians: Think Banana Republic or J. Crew, with the requisite long white coat on top. So what did we all do? We started shopping for “professional clothes,” except few of us had the money to buy stuff from Banana Republic or J. Crew. We cobbled together outfits from shops we could afford.

The pressure to conform, however, went beyond what we wore. There was only one female trauma surgeon who worked with medical students and, while students spoke well of her, resident physicians sometimes remarked that she was “too emotional.” During operations, male surgery fellows told female medical students, “You should feel this lung now, since you’re probably going to go into pediatrics or family practice.” Many of the attending physicians were heterosexual white males. Those of us who were not — men of color, women with or without nose rings, those who identified as LGBTQ — navigated how to conform to the values and behaviors of heterosexual white males, such as the nephrologist. Though some of these values and behaviors have no clinical relevance (e.g., wearing a nose ring does not affect how a physician washes her hands, gathers a history, or conducts a physical exam), they do affect how one goes through medical training. If enough attending physicians make comments about the nose ring, you might stop wearing it, even though the nose ring is something you value as a person.

What do you do, though, when the issue isn’t a nose ring, but your skin color? Sex? Accent? Sexual orientation? Culture?

When surveying the community, many people comment that they feel more comfortable working with health care professionals who look like and share the same experiences as them. Many women, for example, prefer to work with female gynecologists. People who speak languages other than English often feel more comfortable working with physicians who also speak the same language. Americans who are not white often comment that it is often easier to talk with non-white physicians about health concerns.

People with tattoos and nose rings may find it easier to talk with a physician with a nose ring. If the goal is to help keep people healthy and living the lives they want to lead, is it fair to say that nose rings are unprofessional? If the physician with a nose ring is able to connect with her patients and thus serves her community, should we indoctrinate her with the idea that nose rings are unprofessional?

Out of habit I still wear slacks and dress shirts when I see patients. I was trained that I should dress a certain way to both show respect to my patients and demonstrate that I am a professional.

The only time I did not routinely dress in slacks and dress shirts was during my time doing outreach to people who were sleeping outside. Part of this was due to function—it’s much easier to jump over puddles and slide past chainlink fences in jeans and a sweatshirt—but part of this was also because a doctorly outfit was often a liability in these settings.

How would you react if, while eating lunch outside, someone wearing a white coat and a stethoscope around her neck came up to you and asked, “Hi. How are you doing? Are you okay?”

Feedback I often received throughout my medical training (and continue to receive now) is that I do not speak up enough during rounds and related meetings. My seeming reticence partly reflects my introversion; it also reflects Chinese Confucian values. Medicine has trained me to talk more. I will never know if my taciturn tendencies have caused more problems for my patients (I hope not), though we all appreciate someone who is willing to listen.

And while I am sure that the nephrologist would have disapproved of unnatural hair colors, I can’t count the number of times vulnerable people with significant psychiatric symptoms were willing to talk to me simply because of my locks of curious color. This holds true even for people without any psychiatric symptoms.

I trust that the medical student who wore the nose ring has become a fantastic physician. I wonder if she still wears a nose ring. I hope she still does.

One way we recognize physicians is by their white coats. The rest of it — sex, skin color, accents, nose rings, tattoos, hair color, age, height, weight, etc. — shouldn’t matter.

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.  

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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