What Is the Appropriate Attire for a Physician? (Part I)

October 16, 2011
Marisa Torrieri

Is a three-piece suit more off-putting than scrubs? Does it even matter to patients?

I never really thought much about what my doctors wore, so long as they looked professional-ish with some kind of white coat and trouser combo. 

But a recent visit to a highly recommended physician specialist with my husband changed that. When I went in for the consultation, I was immediately struck not by the fact that this doctor was wearing turquoise-blue scrubs, but by the fact that his feet were encased in a pair of Crocs. No socks, either.

I found this physician’s highly casual presentation a little odd at first but my impression quickly changed the longer I sat in his office. I appreciated his laid-back demeanor, his friendliness and intelligence, his positive summery attitude. He had a “Croc” personality, and I liked that.

But when we left his office, my husband immediately whispered to me that he didn’t like this doctor. “Why?” I asked. “His shoes,” he said. “They looked unprofessional. I could see his feet.”

I recently went to another physician for a second opinion, as my husband didn’t like the Croc guy. I’ll call the second physician Dr. New York, as his practice was in Manhattan.

Not even one moment after entering Dr. New York’s office for a consultation, I was put off by his suit and tie - and the all-business, unsmiling professionalism that went with it. Sure, Dr. New York is a celebrated physician with accolades out the window. But I still found myself Googling him shortly after the visit, looking for evidence to confirm my suspicion that he was just trying to get my money to keep up his suit-and-tie lifestyle.

All because of what he wore.

Which led me to wonder, what is appropriate physician attire these days? And more importantly, how can clothes impact the way your patients view you?

One study that caught my attention, which appeared a few years ago in American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, was based on the impressions of more than 1,100 women who encountered male and female physicians in different attire - formal (a tie for men and a buttoned white coat for all); a casual outfit consisting of relaxed clothing and an optional unbuttoned white coat, and hospital scrubs. Authors concluded that attire made little difference in a patient's satisfaction with treatment.

"This contradicts the long-standing belief that attire affects the level of patient comfort or the patient's perception of physician competence and professionalism," lead author Dr. Richard L. Fischer, from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Camden, said in a statement.

But what do other physicians and legal experts think? Stay tuned for Part II of this series to find out.