Patients prefer doctors in white coats
White lab coat or not, patients expect physicians to dress more formally
At the turn of the 20th century, a time of progress in public health and medicine, white laboratory coats came to be associated with doctors.
The white coat symbolised a move away from the primitive tools, techniques and lack of formal training that physicians had previously. It embodied the physicians' move to being more scientific in their practice.
Today, the tradition lives on in medical schools at the White Coat Ceremony, where faculty members help freshmen don their white coats.
But in hospital settings all over the world doctors are abandoning the traditional garb for various reasons, including potential contamination.
Some studies have found these crisp white coats to be teeming with microbes picked up in patient rooms.
But a new study published last month in the Singapore Medical Journal gives a reason for doctors to consider a return to the white coat tradition: It reassures patients with its air of scientific authority.
Doctors from Queensland Health in Australia and the University Malaya Medical Centre in Malaysia found that most patients preferred doctors to dress in white coats, be it during ward rounds, clinic duty, sexual examinations or psychological consultation.
Patients trusted doctors in this attire most, the study found.
"Our findings confirmed that patients perceived doctors in white coats to be more trustworthy, responsible, authoritative, confident, knowledgeable and caring," said the doctors behind the study.
That patients continue to prefer doctors to be dressed in white coats is in part due to the image being perpetuated in the media, said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist in private practice, who was not involved in the study.
"Only medical students wear white coats in Singapore. Doctors have not worn white coats for many decades," he told The New Paper.
While it is true that the white coat may instil confidence in some patients, Dr Lim pointed out that it may also instil fear in others who are worried about seeking medical treatment.
This is the case when it comes to "white coat" hypertension, where one's blood pressure reading is higher than normal in the doctor's office.
Instead of white coats, it may be helpful for doctors to wear name tags, or identify themselves in other ways, said Dr Lim.
What the study does prove, however, is that patients do expect doctors to dress more formally and to look the part.
"If a doctor is untidy or dishevelled, this may affect the confidence of the patients. As such, we do have to be more cognisant of our appearances, particularly during night calls, when we may dress down," he said.
The study also highlights the need to educate the public about the reasons behind changes in doctors' dress codes, said the researchers.
"Bridging the understanding between doctors and patients with respect to the doctor's dress codes in different scenarios and locations can lead to a more positive doctor-patient relationship," they said.
"Ultimately, this will enhance the delivery of healthcare and the overall healthcare experience of patients."