How to be an Authentic Doctor #3: Dress Professionally

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What does your outfit tell about you?  A lot, it turns out.  It tells patients whether you take care of yourself.  It tells patients what you think of yourself.  A disheveled doctor makes a patient suspicious.  Studies like this and this show a doctor’s attire can inspire trust, confidence and comfort levels.   Listen to what this doctor says in this article:

“I hear that patients complain that they do not know who the doctor is — no tie, no white coat, no jacket and no presence,” Dancer said. “Untidiness erodes the image of doctors as responsible and competent.”

Should it be this way?  Probably not.  Such is life.  Style should not be more important than substance but a patient doesn’t know that.  Your job is not to let your lack of attention to appearance be a distraction.

In my opinion, I have to say that primary care doctors would win the award for the worst dressed specialty.  I know because I actually pay attention to this and because I am one of them.  I would love to have gathered the best pics of family docs that I have seen over the years and put them into a montage.  It would be hilarious and may even give the famous internet video called  “People of Walmart” a run for its money.   Talk about a style being 20 years or more out of date?  These people are some weird combination of granola, grunge, and homelessness.

This is not to say other specialities are excluded.   I truly believe there could be a great reality television series mocking physician fashion. Hell, I had a field day with it when I was writing the Placebo Journal.  I also knew one doc who always wore scrubs.  Not because he was a surgeon but because of his ever expanding waistline.

And it is not just clothes.  How about cutting your hair once in a while?  Or getting new shoes?  C’mom people!  It’s called hygiene.  I used to know one doctor who had so much hair coming from his ears (yes, I said ears) that it could have been braided.

This does NOT mean I am some fashion icon in the medical world but at least I try.  I wear a tie.  I iron my clothes.  I buy new clothes yearly.  I wash things.  I sometimes wear a white coat.   I put my stethoscope on my neck.  This is basic stuff that anyone could and SHOULD do.   The old time doctors just looked good on the job.  We don’t.  Oh and forget all the BS you may have heard that neckties and white jackets are bacteria traps.  That may be slightly true for the hospital docs but it’s highly unlikely to be an issue in the office.   Don’t use it as an excuse.  If you don’t care about what you wear anymore then you’ll look like someone who may not care about anything.  And maybe you don’t?  Think about that for a minute.

  3 comments for “How to be an Authentic Doctor #3: Dress Professionally

  1. Kathy Wire
    March 19, 2014 at 11:38 am

    The last paragraph makes me wonder if it was more than fashion sense that led my favorite infectious disease doctor to always wear bowties…decades ago.

  2. Mary K
    March 19, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Our little–300 beds or so–hospital has a family practice residency (I think it’s crazy but that’s another topic) and after several years I noticed the residents attire taking a distinct downward trend. Sweatshirts even!! I finally said something to the attending when I had several patients ask me why that young man with the jeans and sweatshirt was asking them questions about their health. When I answered that he was the doctor some argued with me saying no doctor would dress like that! Our hospital is in a rather conservative town with a large Polish population and those little old bushas didn’t trust anyone who didn’t dress the part. If you’re a professional dress like one!!

  3. Cynthia Freel, MD
    March 15, 2014 at 11:16 am

    Doug ,
    I do agree with you that our profession does not dress like it used to. But neither does anyone else for that matter. The only people who ” dress ” for work anymore are litigators. ( now any lawyers reading this , don’t get all offended. This is just an observation , like Andy Rooney used to make ; not an outcome of a study ) they are going to court, trying to impress a judge and or jury and I am sure they have done focus groups on whether the appearance of the attorney bears on if you find them credible and or competent. Do I think it should not matter , that the facts are the facts ? Absolutely , just like I think it should not matter what I wear to the office either. I should be able to treat you in my pajamas and have it not matter since I would provide you with the same care. But it does matter as Doug says. You never see the actor who plays a doctor look disheveled or unkept do you ? No. They all look like McDreamy.
    Now am I holier or wholier than thou ? Certainly not. My work buddies and I have Friday scrub day. And if I work on the weekend you better believe I will be in scrubs or at least sneakers and faded jeans. But I try to make an effort to look somewhat professional. Basic hygiene is a must. I have my fair share of bad hair days like everybody else. I always wear a white coat ( admittedly not just to ” look ” the part but for function. This is an aside but I notice that predominantly the docs who go sans coat are men. I don’t know how you guys don’t lose stuff more often. Once I finished residency I promised myself no more stethoscope around the neck. I felt I had earned the right to not add to my trapezius strain now that I did not have to carry so much crap on me anymore. So my Seth is in my coat pocket, along with a pen in the breast pocket, my script pad, and yes my pharmacopeia. I readily admit I need it if I have to look up a drug I am unfamiliar with, and I have no problem looking it up in front of the patient. Maybe I want them to see the tiny tiny print they use cuz there are soooo many drugs these days. Remember anyone who uses this handy pocket guide that it used to be held together with a couple staples and now it has actual book binding ( sigh ) . And I know what you tech types and youngens are thinking , ” why doesn’t she just use her phone to look up a drug?” Cuz I am old that’s why!!! I like the idea of turning pages to look stuff up, like in the old days when we walked tothe hospital up hill in the snow bothy ways you young wiper snappers !!!!

    Apologies for digressing. Bottom line, we should look the part. At least what it means to look the part in 2014. So do we have to look like Marcus Welby ? No, but we should look somewhat appropriate and professional.

    Now one last rant and only tangentially related thought about white coats. When did it become completely normal for everyone from pharmacy staff to housekeeping to wear a white coat? Not even a short coat of shame like when we were students and we had to graduate to earn a long coat!!! How are lay persons supposed to know who is the doctor and who is not if everyone looks the same? If the guy from transportation is wearing scrubs and a long white coat just like me? ( plus the thorn in my craw is that I am more often then not mistaken for a technician or a nurse as a female physician in the hospital )

    Sorry to get so off topic but it is early Saturday morning and it struck a cord so to speak.
    As always Muchas Gracias Doug !!!

    Cyn Free MD

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