Whether it’s going out with friends during a new semester of medical school or heading straight into residency this fall, one question we can’t ever seem to escape is: what should I wear?
Although it might seem a bit cliché (and perhaps even superficial), worrying about appropriate attire is completely valid. In a context where your decision is slightly more important like throwing on your student lab coat for rounds, your choice has to take into account everything from industry standards to hospital rules and personal confidence—and even the social and cultural biases of people you haven’t even met.
Many facilities have implemented dress codes for lab coats, including lab coats for students (and what’s worn under them to get all employees on the “same page” when it comes to what is and isn’t appropriate to wear in the hospital, chemistry lab or in classes on campus. Truly, that debate alone can go on for ages. The very words “dress code” can be enough to make someone feel defensive or uncomfortable, most likely due to the infamous sexualization of middle school girls’ shoulders and the subsequent inability to wear tank tops.
All this considered, having an adversarial relationship with dress codes and the concept of professional attire is more understandable. In a medical context, in particular, there are a few other things to consider. Let’s look into how your dress attire can affect your patients just as much as it can affect you, even for those student lab coats moving from classroom to residency this year.
Psychology and dress code
At first thought, it makes sense that the way you dress yourself affects you and only you. And while that should be true, studies have shown that it is quite the opposite.
A study in the American Journal of Medicine took a look at what patients think and feel about their care providers’ dress code. They conducted surveys asked patients to pick out the individual they trusted most out of an array of doctors wearing clothes at differing levels of formality, from casual wear and scrubs to formal shirts and ties and white lab coats.
The results concluded that patients overwhelmingly feel more comfortable with their doctors when they are wearing lab coats and are dressed professionally. A major factor is the ability to identify and differentiate between people at the hospital, especially for those medical students getting their first months of time on the floor.
Just think, if your doctor walks in and is wearing jeans and a button-up shirt, what guarantees you that they aren’t just another patient? While a quick proof of credentials like an ID badge or a medical degree hanging on the wall can clarify, chances are that the moment of shock has already put your guard up and will potentially make it more difficult to open up comfortably about personal details.
And, whether medical students want to hear this or not, the reality is that this group of generally-younger doctors has an even higher pressure from patients to dress in their college lab coats and start off on the right mental foot with each patient.
This last point is one that is brought up specifically in the study. The more a patient trusts their doctor and feels comfortable around them, the better any following procedure is likely to go. From the very beginning, an uncomfortable patient may not be able to share their conditions and personal history as openly, making a diagnosis unnecessarily more difficult. Once the procedure or check-up is over, a patient that doesn’t feel comfortable with the doctor is more likely to be less trusting of the results and about any treatment suggested thereafter.
In short, in order to provide the best possible healthcare, it’s important to make sure that the patient feels comfortable from the very beginning. Since the first thing we see when meeting other people is their appearance—and not their credentials—dress code counts, and the lab coat for students is a must to start residency off with success.
A fashionable, fitted lab coat is a great way to boost your patients’ confidence, too, but it isn’t the only thing you have to consider. If the clothing you wear underneath your lab coat looks like something you’d wear to a party or on a night out, chances are your patients will feel a bit weary.
While there arguably isn’t anything inherently offensive about a deep cut V-neck or a short skirt, many people may be caught off guard by the choice in fashion in a clinic or laboratory, which could consequently cost you their trust, among patients and colleagues alike.
Your own well-being
Sure, covering up for “professionalism” sake might feel a little middle school. And if you’re starting residency, after years of pre-med and medical school, that probably feels like your legs were just cut off.
That said, there is another important reason to wear even more conservative, professional attire underneath your doctor’s lab coat, and it has to do with your own safety and well-being.
In medical school, or if you’re a science student of any type donning your biology lab coat or chemistry lab coat this fall, you probably weren’t allowed to show up to class in short sleeves and shorts. Right? Even in high school chemistry, you probably weren’t allowed to wear open-toed shoes on lab days.
While your teachers and professors might have been strict, these rules weren’t just a bunch of geezers trying to cramp your style—they were serious safety precautions that needed to be taken in case some dangerous substance were to be spilled or dropped, or lit on fire, or turned into a hazardous vapor, etc.
The exact same can be said about what you wear under your white coat to the hospital or in chemistry or biology labs this fall.
A low-cut dress or opened-toed shoes might not be a danger to your peers (popular though the notion is that other students won’t be capable of avoiding a good ogle), but as soon as some biohazardous liquid is accidentally splashed, that uncovered skin is no longer your friend.
Wearing your long hair down or keeping your beard a little “unkept” might not be any of your employer’s business, either, but the fact that long hair and long beards are statistically more likely to carry bacteria in and out of the hospital or light on fire is certainly something both you and your patients have to take into account.
Consider this a PSA to all medical students in their science lab coats this year, and all the young doctors starting residency. In short, what you do or don’t put on your body should be entirely your business most of the time, but what you wear to the hospital or lab affects everyone around you.
Throwing on a custom lab coat over professional and relatively conservative clothes has more to do with your own safety and the well-being of your patients than it does with whether or not your attire is socially appropriate. So stay safe this year, and for every student lab coat, keep that body whole and healthy underneath!