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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Patients Prefer Doctor Dress Code

Tie Optional, But Patients Want Docs in White Coat with Name Tag
WebMD Health News

June 12, 2003 -- It was not a pretty sight.

Like other experienced medical men and women, Lawrence J. Brandt, MD, chief of gastroenterology at New York's Montefiore Medical Center, has seen some terrible things in his day. But this was truly appalling.

As he prepared to deliver his annual address to an assembly of second-year medical students, he looked out at his audience. Who were these people?

"Some students were unkempt and slouched," he writes in the June 9 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. "None of the men was wearing a tie or white shirt." Clearly, he realized, none of the men and many women before him heeded the advice of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: That doctors should "be clean in person, well-dressed, and anointed with sweet-smelling unguents."

Dress Code Studies

Brandt wondered whether these untidy colleagues-to-be bothered patients as much as they bothered him. This led him to the scientific literature, where he reviewed 31 studies looking at how patients -- and other doctors -- feel about how doctors dress.

It turns out to be a complex question. For example, children new to a hospital prefer a doctor to be formally dressed in a white coat. Children who are sick a lot of the time come to prefer doctors who dress informally.

But overall, the studies showed that patients do care about how their doctor looks. Surprisingly, neckties don't seem to matter. In study after study, however, patients have more confidence in doctors who wear white coats and a name tag.

That's not enough, of course. White coats don't help unless a doctor's overall appearance is neat and clean. And the doctor must have a pleasant expression "thereby displaying confidence and concern."

In general, Brandt admits, patients tend to be less conservative about doctor dress codes than doctors. But that's no excuse to be sloppy.

"There is no substitute for a gentle, concerned physician with an engaging, friendly, empathic demeanor," Brandt concludes. "Is attire important? Yes! Is personality important? Yes. Everything is important!"

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