A while back, a first-year med student asked me if I think physicians should wear white coats. There’s a debate about it, she mentioned. Indeed, in the spring of 2009 the AMA considered an unenforceable mandate that physicians in the U.S. not wear white coats. The news was getting around that doctors spread infection from one patient to the next by our garments.

My thoughts on this have always been clear. “Yes,” I answered. “But they’ve got to be clean white coats.”

This week I came upon two stories that led me to pick up the thread on the white coat debate. First, a recent post from the Singing Pen of Doctor Jen, by Jennifer Middleton MD, MPH, who writes from western PA:

We physicians might make assumptions about what patients want us to look like, but what does the evidence say?

A cross-sectional survey in Tennessee a few years ago found that patients prefer family physicians who wear white coats (1).  Another study in a South Carolina internal medicine office found that patients “overwhelmingly” preferred physicians in white coats (2).  A Northeast Ohio OB residency found similarly; patients preferred a white coat and professional dress to scrubs (3). A quick PubMed search pulls up the same theme over and over: the patients studied have more trust in, and comfort with, physicians who wear white coats…(hyperlinks inserted by ES)

Today in the New York Times, a piece by Sandeep Jahuar, MD alludes to the issue by its title: Out of Camelot, Knights in White Coats Lose Way. He considers disillusionment of many doctors with medicine as a profession. He writes:

Physicians used to be the pillars of any community. If you were smart and sincere and ambitious, the top of your class, there was nothing nobler you could aspire to become. Doctors possessed special knowledge. They were caring and smart, the best kind of people you could know.

Today, medicine is just another profession, and doctors have become like everybody else: insecure, discontented and anxious about the future.

As a doctor, I think physicians should wear white coats for several reasons. First, the white coat reminds the wearer that medicine is a special kind of profession, that doctors have extraordinary obligations to patients. Second, the white coat recalls medicine’s basis in science, from which we wouldn’t want to stray too far. Third, it’s to protect ourselves: going home to dinner with your family, loaded with hospital germs, is just not smart.

As a patient, I like it when my doctors where a white coat. It’s reassuring in a primitive kind of way; it makes me feel like the physician is a real doctor who is capable of taking care of me. But the coat should be clean – every day a fresh one, with extra changes if needed.

Of course there are some circumstances when the white coat is appropriately relegated elsewhere: in places like the OR, in most psychiatrists’ offices and in pediatrics – so as not to scare the children, I once learned although I’m not convinced it would.

It takes a certain effort for a doctor to put on a white coat. When I used to get called back in late at night, or after weekend rounds, I’d occasionally just go straight to the patient’s ward or E.R., without stopping by the room where my coat was kept. That was easier, sure, but when I skipped the white coat I felt as if I weren’t fulfilling my part of the deal: to look and act like a doctor should.

Patients need that, usually. And maybe that’s a hang-up, a superficial wanting, a simple reassurance of authority. But maybe it’s also a sign that you’re serious in your duties as a physician, that you’re not cutting corners, that you will do everything you can to fulfill your obligation to the persons under your care, that you know who you are as the doctor.

Maybe, when younger doctors elect not to wear the white coats, for whatever legitimate reasons, or out of laziness in finding a clean one, it’s really that they don’t want the responsibility the coat conveys.

It could also be that they’re just hot, or uncomfortable.

I’ll leave this open, at that.

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