Healthcare News & Insights

White coats & doctors: Creating a hospital dress code

Patient satisfaction is becoming much more significant for hospital reimbursement. And there’s one overlooked factor that may affect patients’ perception of the care they receive: their doctor’s attire – particularly whether he or she’s wearing a white coat. 

For many patients, the old adage is true: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

And their impression of their doctors – along with the care they receive from them – can be drastically affected by the clothing they’re wearing.

Two medical professors at the University of Michigan, Vineet Chopra and Sanjay Saint, wrote an article for an independent news website, The Conversation, about the importance of dressing well for doctors.

Professional standards

The professors informally surveyed some of their medical students. They found that, while the majority didn’t think much about dressing up when making the rounds with their patients, most of them felt that what they wear affects how patients perceive them.

Another informal survey, conducted by MedPage Today with over 2,000 patients and providers, showed that over 60% of participants thought doctors should be wearing white coats during patient encounters.

Other research conducted among patients supports this view. Chopra and Saint reviewed many studies conducted over the years examining how patients felt about their doctors’ attire. Based on that evidence, patients have a strong preference for doctors wearing clothing that clearly identified them as medical professionals.

Setting matters

Interestingly, patients had different expectations depending on the setting they received care in. Patients wanted to see doctors in scrubs in the emergency department and operating room, since it looked more professional for the hands-on care they received.

But in other situations, such as in the outpatient setting, patients didn’t want to see doctors in scrubs, preferring more formal clothing.

So it’s clear the setting of care makes a difference. The professors suggest doctors should dress accordingly based on the department they’re in and their patient mix.

Example: Providers who primarily treat children may want to dress more casually to make their younger patients feel more comfortable.

Establishing requirements

According to Chopra and Saint, many hospitals don’t have formal dress codes, only opting to say that doctors and surgeons should dress “professionally.” Some providers interpret that as wearing a button-down shirt with jeans, and others wear more formal outfits. Many forego the white coat altogether.

The two University of Michigan professors suggested hospitals take a different approach and create specific dress codes for doctors in different roles.

Those who work primarily in the OR or ED should always wear their scrubs, while doctors who see patients in other areas should have more formal dress requirements – including the white coats.

Infection risks

Many cite the risk of infection as reasons why they avoid wearing white coats and ties, as germs cling to these garments and they aren’t washed as frequently as scrubs.

However, the professors noted, while these garments may carry germs, there’s no evidence they spread infection in hospitals. Plus, providers can switch out among multiple coats and ties – and start washing them more regularly.

Benefits for hospitals

It may be to a hospital’s advantage to enforce specific dress codes. If patients view their doctors as authoritative, confident professionals, they’re more likely to trust their recommendations for care, which can improve patient outcomes overall.

With patients’ perceptions of even the little things involved with a hospital visit (such as meals) making a difference in how they rate a hospital’s quality of care, it may be worthwhile to update your facility’s dress code to reflect their expectations for professionalism. One white coat may make a big difference in their satisfaction scores.

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