Four years ago after moving back to Iowa City, I needed to find a new primary care doctor. I went to the University’s website and scanned the list of general internists. There I noted a physician that I had known when she was a medical student during my prior stint at the University of Iowa 20 years prior. She had been an amazing medical student, very bright, hardworking, conscientious, and intellectually curious. My guess was that she now was an amazing internist. I asked a few colleagues about her and the responses were consistent: a superb clinician, an internist’s internist. Exactly what I was looking for.
I scheduled a new patient visit with Dr. B. Was I ever impressed! No stone was left unturned. She didn’t treat me like a doctor (for non-medical readers, that’s a good thing). She took a complete history, including asking me if I ever used IV drugs. She took a sexual history. She then performed a complete exam, including genital and rectal exams. I note this as sometimes doctors skip these parts of the H&P given the somewhat awkward situation when they know the patient (another doctor) personally. At the end of the visit, I recall telling her that the encounter should have been videotaped for use as an exemplar for students and residents. When I arrived back to my office, I sent a note to the chair of internal medicine to apprise him of her superb care. He wrote me back: “Yes, Dr. B is the crown jewel of the department of internal medicine.”
Now let’s leave my story for a minute and examine a new study in the BMJ from the University of Michigan on patient preference for physician attire. This is a survey of a convenience sample of 4,000 patients at 10 U.S. academic medical centers. It included both inpatients and outpatients, and used the design of many previous studies, showing patients the same doctor dressed seven different ways (scrubs, formal with white coat, etc.). After viewing the photographs, patients were questioned as to their preference of physician based on attire, as well as asked to rate the physician in the areas of knowledge, trust, care, approachability, and comfort.
The survey is well-designed and well-executed. I’ll let you review the paper if you want to know the results, since I don’t think the results have much validity, don’t merit much discussion, and I’ve blogged about these types of studies previously. I’m much more interested in why such studies are conducted, the biases they may represent, whether the researchers have an underlying agenda, the utility of the results, and how these studies are pathologic manifestations of professionalism.
Back to my story. Never once, before, during or after my clinic visit with Dr. B, did I for a millisecond think about how she would be or was dressed. Granted, I’m not the typical patient as I have insider knowledge regarding doctors that the average patient does not. Even still, all patients want an authentically kind, compassionate, competent doctor who listens intently, and makes access to them easy. While they may have a preference for physician attire, when placed in context (as shown in a previous study), appearance is the least important patient satisfier. When appearance is further studied, attire is the least important characteristic, with hygiene and grooming taking precedence.
To ask patients to infer characteristics such as knowledge and trust on the basis of clothing is ludicrous on its face, and an insult to the study participants. “I chose the doctor with the beautiful tie,” said no patient ever. I dislike this study for the same reasons that I dislike the tactics of Disney service excellence and Press-Ganey patient satisfaction initiatives. The common theme is that you can and should manipulate patients’ perceptions without changing reality. Per the Michigan study, a white coat makes the doctor look more caring, but all of us know that a jerk in a white coat is still a jerk. If the doctor sits down while talking to a patient, the patient will perceive that they stayed in their room longer. How about sitting down because it makes the patient more comfortable?
The authors argue for patient-centered care and that “attire may be an important, modifiable component of patient care.” How does this study help us to provide patient-centered care since no matter how the data were sliced there was always a sizable fraction (often nearly half) of patients that didn’t agree with the majority opinion? Does this mean we should ask each patient which of the seven attire modes they would prefer before entering the exam room?
Lastly, I don’t think this study is really about what patients think of how doctors dress. Underneath it all, it’s a study about what some doctors think about how other doctors dress. And this is the ugly side of professionalism. Imagine a study where physicians are surveyed on the attire of nurses or carpenters. I think most people would find that creepy. Don’t most of us think that judging people on the basis of how they dress is superficial and somewhat creepy? And the test of whether this is about professionalism is to remove the occupational label in the survey. If patients were told to assess the attire of other people (not doctors) what would be the study implications? If we look at attire through the lens of humanism rather than professionalism, then what matters is simply that your work clothes are clean, comfortable, functional, and safe.
My advice to the Michigan doctors is this: Take good care of your patients and they will love you, white coats and all.
Michael Edmond is an infectious disease physician who blogs at Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.
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