How physicians dress matters. Here’s why.

Anybody who has ever been to Europe, knows that fashion trends and the way people dress are very different from the United States, and generally more formal and fashion conscious (not to make a generalization — but it’s true). Growing up in England, every school has a uniform from an early age. (There are pictures of me wearing a tiny little shirt, tie, blazer, and hat to preschool when I was only four years old!)

In medical school, it was mandatory for males to wear a shirt and tie on clinical rotations, and females were advised to wear professional business-like attire. Therefore, dressing up in the morning was always something I was always used to. I remember when I first arrived in the United States to start my medical residency, my co-residents would comment to me how well dressed they thought I was (to my surprise, since I thought I was just dressing normally). It’s a habit I have continued, and to this day, I always wear a shirt and tie to hospital — even on weekends. It’s funny because since I left the U.K., the National Health Service (the universal government-controlled health care system) instituted a policy banning “anything below the elbows” in any hospital or office. This included any long sleeves or even watches. My own view is that this was a political stunt, and from what I’ve heard — many physicians in the U.K. thought so too. The idea was that white coats, sleeves, and ties transmit infection (with somewhat dubious evidence). Such is the power of a centrally administered socialized-type health care system to be able to institute a very dramatic immediate directive to every health care professional in the nation. But I digress.

Back to the point on what physicians wear — because overnight the U.K. went from having some of the best-dressed doctors in the world, to something quite different, in every hospital and office throughout the country. The USA, of course, has no such country-wide policy (or ability to dictate one, at least yet). However, it’s an area where I feel physicians do not do themselves full justice. Of course, for certain specialties like surgeons who are in the OR for large parts of the day, wearing professional attire may not be practical. But for those who are not going into the OR, dressing well for work has a lot of benefits and communicates a lot about oneself:

1. You care about your appearance

The most basic message that wearing professional clothes and trying to look good has, is that it subconsciously tells everyone around you — colleagues and more importantly your patients — that you are somebody who puts in the effort and takes pride in yourself. Like it or not, this will also lead to follow-up assumptions about your competence and abilities as a physician. If a doctor (or for that matter any professional) is immaculate in their appearance, will they also be immaculate in my care? Without wanting to go off topic here, and I’ll probably save this for a future article instead, there have also been multiple studies into how what you wear — especially the colors — have an immediate effect in communicating certain things to the people around you (you can google some of that research yourself in the meantime).

2. Patients really like it

I have lost count of the number of times I have had compliments from patients and staff alike about what I am wearing. I get them on a daily basis (and who wouldn’t enjoy that). Without making this sound inappropriate (not my intention, as I know this can have different implications for males and females who may be receiving comments about how they are dressed), but I’ve noticed very elderly female patients especially go absolutely nuts over a nice tie, especially one with a unique design. “Oh, such a lovely tie Dr. Dhand!”. It’s all very well-meaning and jovial, and I’m happy with anything that makes my patients smile. But all joking aside, almost all patients — male and female — appreciate a physician who is well-dressed and looking professional. Even if you don’t like ties (I know many men who don’t), at least consider wearing a nice shirt!

3. You are somebody who is going places and on a kickass career path

Whatever it is you want to do, whatever your long-term goals are — the importance of looking the part cannot be overstated. If you are someone with lofty ambitions and big career goals, show the world you mean business! There’s a reason why every career success expert advises you to: dress for success.

None of these things mean you need to spend exorbitant sums of money on designer clothes or an exclusive wardrobe (I assure you, I am far from that myself). It’s simply about dressing to impress. At a time when the medical profession is facing a number of challenges, and some may say even being under siege a little, remember each time you step out onto the floor of the hospital or office, and put on your physician face to the public, you are an ambassador to your profession. I am a little saddened when I see some doctors come into work looking like they have just rolled out of bed. Or worse still wearing dirty, stained and creased clothing. Not good and a huge missed opportunity. Furthermore, in the era of corporate medicine and so many “suits” walking the halls in health care, I am also cognizant of the fact that I don’t want the business guys wandering around looking sharper than the really important clinicians!

I personally enjoy dressing up for work. Some may think this bordering on slightly obsessive, but I without fail iron my shirt and pants the night before I wear them to work. It’s part of my evening routine. You don’t necessarily need to be as extreme as me however if that’s too much for you. But every doctor should at least put some thought into whether they are looking their best. Eliciting the feedback of immediate family may be a good first step if you are interested in taking things up a notch. I wouldn’t even want to show up at work and present myself to a patient or their family, unless I thought I looked the part.

Finally, there’s also one other aspect of dressing well that I believe in strongly. That’s the mantra: look good, feel good. If you are putting in the effort, there’s a fair chance that you will be more likely feel good as well! And maybe, just maybe, send over some of those “feel good and energetic” vibes to your patients too.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author. He is the founder, DocSpeak Communications and co-founder, DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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