Clothes make the doctor

To this day, doctors are still considered demigods in white in many places. Aside from the stethoscope, the white coat is their most important distinguishing feature. However, hygiene concerns mean that it is increasingly being banished from everyday hospital life. Will more doctors wear a suit or t-shirt on the ward in future? And what do patients think of this?

There are already clear differences in doctors’ clothing today. In English-speaking countries, business attire traditionally dominates, while the combination of white clothing and a coat is still more common in many European countries. However, it is not only the country but also the field that plays a crucial role in the choice of clothing. Whereas psychiatrists often wear “civilian” clothes under their coats, coloured trousers and tunics predominate in functional departments, anaesthesia and first-aid centres.

What a doctor wears is by no means irrelevant. In the past, the influence of the choice of clothes on the external impact and success of treatment has already been investigated on a broad scale. It has been shown that it influences patients both consciously and unconsciously. Accordingly, formal clothing conveys the impression of competence, but can also have an intimidating effect and contribute to patients expressing questions and concerns less frequently. A casual outfit, on the other hand, may be perceived as less trustworthy and may have an adverse impact on compliance with therapy instructions.

Swiss researchers recently published the results of the largest study to date on the influence of medical clothing on patient perception in Europe. They showed more than 800 patients pictures of doctors in different outfits and interviewed them afterwards. Overall, more than a third of the patients indicated that the appearance of their attending physicians was important to them. For a quarter of the respondents, the choice of clothes had a subjective influence on treatment satisfaction.

Most patients in the clinical setting preferred a combination of a white top and coat. This combination also received the highest scores in the “Care”, “Trust” and “Accessibility” categories and was only outnumbered in the “Expertise” category by the combination of formal clothing and white coat. In view of the numerous occupational groups in hospitals, the white coat seems to enhance not only patients’ perception of doctors’ attributes, but also their unambiguous identification.

Although there was a clear trend, respondents’ preferences varied according to age, gender and treatment situation. Older patients, in particular, attach greater importance to appearance and prefer formal clothing. They also associate doctors’ appearance more strongly with treatment satisfaction. The treatment framework also plays a role. In comparison to hospital doctors, casual or formal clothing in combination with a white coat was preferred for family doctors, whereas white tunics alone were more likely to be viewed negatively.

Consequently, the appearance of the attending physicians is important to many patients and influences the doctor-patient relationship. It is known from psychological experiments that people form an initial impression of their counterpart within fractions of a second based on their appearance. If this first impression is positive, in most cases the doctor-patient relationship will also benefit. For this reason, workwear should be carefully selected.

Ultimately, although hygienists may not like it, the white coat still seems to be the most important piece of clothing for doctors from the patient's point of view.

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