Why do physicians wear white lab coats? Boxy, plain and unisex, they are hardly a sartorial statement.
White Lab Coats – But they are functional. The big pockets can hold a stethoscope, ophthalmoscope, paper, pen and so on. The lab coat also protects clothes from a common on-the-job hazard, flying bodily fluids. It’s simple to change if soiled, and easy enough to launder.
Beyond the practical, what doctors wear is loaded with symbolism.
Clothing influences how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves. The white lab coats screams out “official,” “brainy” and “in charge.”
It is, in the health-care setting, an outdated symbol of hierarchy. It is so 20th century.
A little history is in order.
The white lab coats first made its appearance in the late 1800s. Prior to that, lab coats were traditionally beige and worn in, well, laboratories. Doctors, like clergy, dressed in black to reflect the sombre nature of their work.
The end of the 19th century was a time of tremendous progress in public health and medicine, when the benefits of sanitation and clean water were recognized. In the hospital setting, antiseptics revolutionized care.
Prior to the germ-fighting era, physicians were largely indistinguishable from other quacks such as homeopaths and snake-oil salesmen. A medical-school degree could be obtained in a year, and there were few standards of good practice.
With the advent of germ theory, physicians strove to be more scientific in their practice and their dress. Medical schools also adopted a more rigorous and standardized curriculum.
The white lab coats embodied this new philosophy.
White is the colour of hope and the lab coat the symbol of the healer.
Surgeons became the first to wear the white lab coats, followed by hospital doctors and then in-office general practitioners. By 1915, it had become the norm, though doctors doing home visits still dressed formally.
To this day, most medical schools have a “White Coat Ceremony,” where new students are solemnly presented with a short white coat at the beginning of their studies. When they graduate, they get a long white lab coats. (If you’re in a hospital coat, length is a handy way to identify the students.)
But the white-coat tradition is dying.
Only one in eight doctors now wears a white lab coats, according to a U.S. study. Some specialists, like pediatricians and psychiatrists, long ago gave up the uniform because it was seen as scary by their patients.
In fact, one of the reasons physicians have abandoned the traditional garb is that they feel the visual symbol of hierarchy impedes patient care.