The white lab coat holds a special place in our psyche. And just like a priest’s clerical collar, these two articles represent the workplace attire most charged with symbolism.
Scientists first wore what we recognize as today’s lab coat around the early 1800s. More than 50 years later, surgeons acquired the white coat, too, followed quickly by physicians. The history of lab coats, without a doubt, plays a role in its symbolism today. In fact, it was thanks to science-based medical practitioners wanting to differentiate themselves from the “healers” of the day that doctors adopted the science lab coat in the first place.
Today, the white lab coat can stand for anything from professionalism to a commitment to care for the health of others. Or, depending on who you ask, it can also represent a new notion of elitism or the reckless spread of germs.
The arguments on both sides of the aisle are interesting, and we’ll break them down here for you to come to your own conclusions. Whatever your final thoughts, 97% of medical schools today have a white coat ceremony. The white coat continues to hold a deep significance for most.
Top clinical cases worth talking about
The clinicians who have been most vocal about rethinking the white coat (or, at least, redesigning it) have been pediatricians and psychiatrists. In the case of the former, the fear is that children might be more sensitive to the perceived “seriousness” of their ailment if an adult-looking doctor in a designer lab coat shows up. In the case of the latter, it’s such a jump for many patients to seek psychiatric care to begin with that some psychiatrists have reconsidered the white lab jacket to break down the barrier between them and their patients.
That said, many patients report feeling more at ease and more confident in a practitioner’s expertise when seen wearing a lab coat. There have been many studies around this that have noted patients’ perception of providers’ rigor and professionalism. In one such recent study (and the largest of its kind) at the University of Michigan, 4,000 patients were studied at 10 different medical centers around the United States. The study found that doctors donning the white lab coat not only improve how patients view them, but their sense of satisfaction with the care received.
Nonetheless, what we wear is among the easiest things we can modify. If more compelling studies show a greater advantage to modifying the white lab coat design in the future, it will be something worth talking about.
Medical professionals’ image versus potential infection
When debates come up about the now-ubiquitous doctor jacket, it’s not just about how it looks. Some professionals say that what patients expect or want providers to wear isn’t the right question to ask.
Instead, a number of concerned practitioners point to evidence that suggests that white coats can harbor potentially dangerous microbes. The folds and seams of the lab coat, namely around the cuffs and pockets, are particularly prone to collect germs.
Additional studies have taken place all around the world to explore this claim, and many have found that the white coat can be particularly “germy.”
This said, several of these studies failed to compare the “germy” status of lab coats to other labwear. It would follow logically that any garment worn in a clinical environment will be riddled with microbes.
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, better standards can be put in place to clean and maintain coats to give practitioners best-practice guidelines to follow. Most in favor of the white coat—for all symbolic and practical reasons—say that germs are better on a white coat than on the practitioner’s personal clothing or skin. They also point out that white lab coats can be laundered more often.
Do doctors regularly launder their neckties? Anything worn to the clinic should follow a standard practice of regularly being cleaned.
Other infection specialists have pointed to the lack of evidence that white coat germs are a) more abundant and b) making patients sick. They do, however, offer another suggestion for practitioners to simply roll up their sleeves. Long sleeves on any garment can cause cross-contamination, making the simple “roll-‘em-up” solution a compelling one.
Infection, without a doubt, has to be the primary concern for medical providers. What patients expect doctors to wear, however, remains an important factor for patients and doctors all over the world. The market has responded, too, and short-sleeved white coats have become increasingly available. Dr-James has taken our own spin and even designed a half-sleeve women’s lab coat option. This option not only safer, but a win-win for female practitioners who are otherwise stuck clicking through unisex options.
Best washing tips for white lab coats
For those who recognize that they don’t launder their lab coats as often as they should, there are some easy tips to follow to ensure the coats are washed properly, that they stay white, and that they last as long as they can.
Working with patients can be messy. Beyond the inevitable biome of microbes that cling onto fabric, stains will also happen.
The key to keeping your best lab coats clean (and white) is to treat stains as soon as they happen. By washing your lab coat regularly, you will not only remove stains and microbes but your own body oils, too.
That said, what’s the easiest way to treat your patients in the most professional and sanitary fashion? Have several clean labcoats handy so you can rotate clean lab jackets throughout the week.
When washing a lab coat, always wash it with other white items (separately from colors), and use the heaviest-duty detergent you have. For the sake of properly sanitizing the coat, be sure to use the hottest water recommended on the labcoat’s care label.
When it comes to drying, just be sure any stains came out fully before you toss your lab coat into the dryer. If a stain persists, treat it again and rewash before drying.
For tricky stains, you can pretreat them with a stain remover or even a little liquid detergent. Work either of these directly into the stain site. If you use a stain remover, leave the coat out and allow the remover to work for about 15 minutes before starting the wash cycle.
Because of the cotton blend in virtually all lab coats, there is no such thing as a “wrinkle free” wash. To preserve the professionalism your designer lab coat provides and avoid distracting patients with a wrinkly doctor jacket, be ready to iron your freshly laundered lab coats. Ironing your white coats while they’re still slightly damp can remove wrinkles more easily.
Check out this other article for more tips on keeping lab coats white.
Practicality in pockets
The ongoing debate to potentially “hang up the white lab coat” for good has been fairly one-sided in favor of keeping the doctor jacket, and one of the primary reasons is pockets. Wearing business-professional attire—or even scrubs—in a medical setting means less access to pockets, and the pocket design of today’s newest and best lab coats are especially accommodating for the electronic devices doctors now carry as a norm.
For female practitioners, the consideration of pockets is especially important, as many women’s articles (even slacks) do not include pockets in their design.
Rethinking the medical training hierarchy
Without a doubt, there are hierarchies in clinical settings. Techs help nurses, nurses help doctors, and the classic labwear used by each of these professionals helps everyone differentiate who is who (patients and professionals alike).
Even among doctors, there are additional hierarchies. For first-year medical residents, it’s common to see shorter white lab coats. Once they’re through that first year, a longer, knee-length labcoat is then acquired.
Whether or not patients pick up on this difference, clinic and hospital insiders sure do. And now, that tradition has been under fire along with some of these other recent white coat questions.
The argument in favor of ditching the “differentiating styles of lab coats” can certainly be made by speaking to uniformity. In fact, doing away with first-year doctor jackets and making a single, organizational recommendation for lab wear can be more practical and more cost-effective for both institutions and doctors.
Those who are still fond of the tradition, however, point out that the first year in a doctor’s career is the most meaningful year of that doctor’s education. And if that first year is all about being a learner, doctors can be more aware and appreciative of their place in the grand scheme of things by making a subtle distinction with these shorter labcoats.
Opponents to the tradition say that there are other ways to remind beginning residents of this without creating a physical symbol of hierarchy.
Many clinics and hospitals are considering eliminating this practice, but the one constant will still be the white coat. The institutions’ values aren’t changing, it’s just a matter of a compromise on symbols.
Whatever route you choose when it comes to internal hierarchies, from a patient’s perspective the most important thing is uniformity. To this end, corporate or institutional standards are an easy path to improve patients’ comfort and ability to discern who is who. Organizational lab coats (or the purchase of one specific design in the appropriate sizes from a single maker) is the exemplary application of this norm.
It’s the youngest generation of doctors who tend to prefer casual clothing, but with some of these arguments against the lab coat debunked, the white lab coat continues to win for practicality, professionalism and patient satisfaction.
Will the white coat vanish when millennial doctors dominate the medical scene? Will it phase out and remain in science labs where it started, only to fizzle out for good in the future? Doubtful. Will some physicians, particularly pediatricians and psychiatrists, continue talking about it? Likely.
Continuing the conversation is valuable because it pushes labwear design where it needs to go. By addressing new needs, for example, we’ve been able to speak up on behalf of women entering medicine and science to ensure lab coat design is done with the 21st century professional in mind. It’s hard to imagine now, but it was just a few years ago that there were no fitted lab coats for women on the market.
Most of these questions and debates come down to personal preference, too. Doctors will make choices for themselves, as will science professionals, as will clinics and hospitals.
So, what do labcoats and priests’ collars have in common?
Symbolism and debate, of course.
Do any of these issues resonate with you? What would you like to see worn at your facility? What other lab coat debates or questions do you want to see debunked or discussed? Start the conversation with us today!