Do doctors need to dress for success?

lab-coatLast year I looked at how our clothes influence how we’re perceived at work.  It was based on a study that showed that when we purposefully fail to conform to the norms expected of us, it can often make people think of us as more powerful.

“We proposed that, under certain conditions, nonconforming behaviors can be more beneficial to someone than simply trying to fit in. In other words, when it looks deliberate, a person can appear to have a higher status and sense of competency,” write authors Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan (all Harvard University).

It provided an interesting insight into how looks can influence our perceptions of people.  This has been used in advertising for years, with scientists usually decked out in a lab coat of some kind.

Does this same line of thinking apply to real world health environments?  A recent study set out to see whether we want our doctors dressed in suits or even a lab coat, or whether we’re happy for them to wear whatever they like so long as they do a great job on ourselves or a loved one.

Well, it kind of depends

It emerged that things such as our age, and indeed the culture we’re from, played a big part in our expectations of attire.  For instance, the study found that Asians and Europeans would want doctors to be dressed formally, as would Americans who were over 50.

Younger Americans however were much less fussed and were happy for their physicians to be dressed more casually.

“As physicians, we want to make sure that we’re dressing in a way that reflects a level of professionalism and also mindful of patients’ preferences,” the authors say.

“Many studies have looked at various aspects of physician attire, so we wanted to look across this body of literature to find common threads. But at the same time, we found a lack of detailed guidance from top hospitals to their physicians about how to dress.”

It’ a very personal thing

What was very clear however is that whilst there weren’t real consensus in expectations, individuals did nonetheless have very clear preferences around the attire of their doctor, with many reporting that the choice of clothing affected their perception of the doctor.

The main exception to this rule was in surgery, where patients expressed much less interest in how their surgeon was dressed.  There were similar findings emerging from patients in emergency departments and intensive care also.

“In order to better tailor physician attire to patient preferences and improve available evidence, we would recommend that healthcare systems capture the ‘voice of the customer’ in individual care locations, such as intensive care units and emergency departments,” the authors say.

Suffice to say, what you should wear to work isn’t something that’s usually covered in medical school, and indeed it isn’t really something that many employers have a perspective on either.  A recent survey of hospitals found that just 20 percent of them offered specific guidance on what their doctors should be wearing, with the vast majority of those simply requesting that doctors look ‘professional’.

The next stage will see the authors undertake a detailed, international study of how physician clothing impacts patient outcomes.  The study will focus on patients in speciality clinic waiting rooms and outpatient general medicine.

“Everything is supposed to be evidence-based in medicine,” they suggest. “With this review and our new study, we can provide compelling evidence to influence the way physicians dress.”

We’ve seen recently a major campaign to encourage doctors to introduce themselves to patients, and it would seem logical to conclude that how doctors dress would have a similar impact on first impressions.

Should more hospitals encourage a more rigid dress code for doctors therefore?

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