Is it Time to Let Go of the Symbolic White Coat?

>> Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Last summer, the New York Times posted an article entitled "Lab Coat is on the Hook in the Fight Against Germs". The impetus for the article was a proposal made to the AMA by a group of doctors, suggesting that we hang up the white coat for good due to their known colonization of a variety of harmful microbes. However, it more interestingly brings up the social debate that this proposal stirs up regarding professional attire. There are people who feel strongly on either side of the debate, as one physician in the article notes: "The coat is part of what defines me, and I couldn’t function without it" (oh, really?). Meanwhile, in an article we discussed in my ethics class, "Desiderata or Dogma: What the Evidence Reveals About Physician Attire", the author concludes that "patients are more flexible about what they consider ‘professional dress’ than the professionals who are setting standards”.

This article stimulated a colorful discussion between amongst my classmates, out of fairness I'll present both sides :) Those in favor of keeping the coat, noted that it serves as an easy source of identification, is useful for carrying pens/books/stethoscope/etc, and engenders patient trust. Those okay with losing the coat, mentioned first and foremost, its potential harm to patients - especially those that are immunosuppressed and therefore more susceptible to infection. White coats do not get washed on a daily basis, and mine often have a grey ring of physical dirt at the end of the sleeve, on top of the microscopic ecosystem it is likely harboring. We also noted (ok now you know which side I'm on...), that medical schools should place more emphasis on empathy and open, honest communication, rather than a standardized appearance. I think we should afford each other the same openness we hopefully afford our patients - this mango may appear shabby, but wasn't it worth the look inside? :)

I've added a poll on the right, feel free to participate or leave a comment! Though the behavioral scientist in me is cringing at all of the biases I've already instilled in it :( ha!


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