Should lab coats be part of dress code?

The easiest way to distinguish many professionals is by the way they’re dressed. This rings especially true for doctors, all thanks to the white lab coat.

The white coat is a symbol of professionalism and scientific expertise, and it has become a fundamental part of virtually any healthcare setting—and for a variety of reasons. A designer lab coat can boost the confidence of doctors by serving as a reminder of long-sought accomplishments (every doctor dreamed of that white lab coat ceremony as medical students), and also provide greater comfort to patients (keep reading for more on this point).

That said, by today’s standards, a “functional” lab coat isn’t enough. And this comes from the general evolution of work fashion, among other things.

For example, up until the 1950s, employees were dressed more uniformly in professional settings with dark suits, white shirts, and dark ties practically a requirement for most office professions. Things like short dresses, beards and visible body art were not an option for any professionals at that time.

For doctors, although today’s standard white lab coats were present at the time, they were still pretty simple—essentially just robes with buttons. Today, however, things are different. A white lab coat cannot be just functional; with smart fabrics, new devices demanding specialized pockets and more women entering medicine, today’s lab coats have to be exceptional.

This article will highlight why white lab coats are still very important for doctors, patients, and healthcare facilities; whether things like tattoos and visible body art play a role in patients’ eyes; and if there should be design standards when it comes to lab coats. Let’s dive in!


Why lab coats are important

For what it’s worth, the white lab coat is not just a fundamental part of healthcare, but a tradition. It’s present throughout the whole academic and professional journey of a doctor, from the days spent dreaming as a child about becoming a physician all the way through graduation and to their white coat ceremony, and then onto the time where new doctors realize the dream and go to work.

As a result, the lab coat holds a very special meaning for every doctor, and it’s easy to see how this meaning can empower doctors to feel a certain sense of pride and confidence when wearing a lab coat. These positive emotions go hand-in-hand with success, and can actually drive performance.

Yes, positive thinking is a thing, especially when it comes to the confidence doctors need to exhibit—for their sake and that of their patients.

Nonetheless, there is a greater reason that lab coats are fundamental in healthcare. It’s the same reason that made doctors want to become doctors in the first place—the drive to treat and help people.

A few weeks ago, we examined how the lab coat affects patient treatment. We took a look at a study on patient preference for physical attire. The results of this study not only showed that patients prefer doctors to wear white coats, but that lab coats can actually improve the patient experience in a very real way. Patients feel more comfortable around doctors that wear a white lab coat, and this in turn relieves stress and anxiety and results in better treatment and diagnoses.


Should there be a dress code for doctors?

Why professionals need the best pockets on lab coats

By now, we’ve seen how and why lab coats are a fundamental part of a doctor’s attire. But what about the rest of a doctor’s appearance? What about beards, visible body art, or what’s worn under a lab coat?

We will address these questions while leveraging fascinating data from a recent study on patients’ attitudes to tattoos and piercings on physicians.

In this study, emergency room doctors were planted with some of the following fake body art to test patient response. This body art included non-traditional piercings (i.e., anything but the ears), temporary tattoos, or neither (for the control group).

After an encounter with a patient, surveys were administered to patients to rate the competence, professionalism, caring, approachability, trustworthiness and reliability of the doctor. The results of the study were pretty clear. Patients did not perceive any difference across these five domains in the setting of exposed body art. In addition, patients assigned top performance in all domains, regardless of the doctor’s appearance.

That answers that. It appears we’ve by and large moved past certain stigmas, meaning our medical dress codes don’t necessarily have to include these older “dos” and don’ts.”

But what about today’s professionally-designed lab coats? Let’s take a look.


Should there be design standards for lab coats?

Since the white lab coat can actually assist in the overall treatment of patients, there’s no doubt that they should be present in healthcare. By what about their design and style? Should lab coats be simple robes with buttons, or exceptionally designed pieces with their own plot on the fashion spectrum?

Positive emotions like confidence go hand-in-hand with performance and success. We can agree that feeling attractive or “put together” is definitely positive, and this can ultimately increase the performance of doctors who feel that way. And along with better performance comes higher patient satisfaction, too.

Another recent study on patient experience and hospital profitability has shown that positive patient experience is linked with increased profitability while negative patient experience is even more strongly correlated with decreased profitability. As a result, it has become clear that owners of healthcare facilities should reconsider their standards for lab coats. Because, if exceptionally designed lab coats can make doctors happier and more productive (and make patients feel happier), they should unequivocally be a standard for any healthcare setting.

We’ve examined how important white lab coats are for patients, doctors, and healthcare owners, and if a dress code for doctors is necessary. The key takeaway here is simple: if the healthcare experience can be improved by promoting attire that leaves physicians feeling and working better, this is a win for doctors, patients and facilities alike.