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

October 18, 2011

What you wear may impact everything from a patient’s perception of you to your likelihood of a malpractice suit.

In Part I of our series on physician attire, we broached the subject of what doctors wear - and what is considered appropriate attire. 

In Part II, we asked physicians if what doctors wear can influence a patient’s perception of a doctor's professionalism and the quality of care. As it turns out, clothing does make a difference.

“Patients judge us on our appearances the same way we all judge people by their appearances,” said family physician Melissa Young, a contributor to Practice Notes. “But dressing appropriately tells patients that we care enough to make an effort. When you go on a date, you don't want to be judged on your looks, but you still put on nice clothes and do your hair and make-up or shave as the case may be. As for scrubs, it’s okay if you are just coming back from the OR, otherwise change.”

Family medicine doctor and healthcare consultant Craig Koniver, who also contributes to Practice Notes, says that dressing too formally - like my Dr. New York - can give off the wrong impression.

“Suits are weird in medicine to me,” said Koniver. “Suits remind me of bankers and lawyers but not doctors. When I see doctors in suits it makes me think that they are trying to give off the image that they are well-off or something. I would much rather see a doctor wear scrubs than a suit.”

Young says that wearing suits or designer clothes is “tricky.” Though it shows patients you put the effort in, it “perpetuates the hugely inaccurate stereotype of the rich doctor.” However, “If your specialty is cash-based, and if appearance is a focus, such as plastic surgery, it may be appropriate.”

Okay. So doctors who dress to the nines or dress too casually can put off some patients (like me), but not others.

But does what a physician wears hold any weight when it comes to malpractice lawsuits?

We asked Ericka L. Adler , an attorney with Kamensky Rubinstein Hochman & Delott, LLP, who specializes in healthcare issues and is a contributor to Practice Notes, what she thought.

“Whether there is really a tie between experience and patient outcomes and/or malpractice claims, I cannot say,” Adler told Physicians Practice. “I would guess that sloppy, unkempt doctors may be viewed as more scattered and disorganized. If a patient has a bad outcome with this type of doctor, they may be more apt to believe that it was a result of lack of proper care because the doctor was not organized, did not appear to handle things professionally, whether true or not. If a physician is well-dressed, shirt and tie or nice blouse with hair and nails done, they may be viewed as being more put together, professional and organized, like any other profession. A patient with a bad outcome may be apt to view this doctor more favorably, and therefore, not be quick to assume malpractice. Also, better dresser and better groomed may attract a higher socioeconomic and more sophisticated client, who are statistically less likely to sue.”

Adler said that some of her practice clients have physician handbooks requiring certain clothing/grooming standards, “so clearly there is at least a perception that an appearance of professionalism will result in a better doctor experience.”

So what should your rule of thumb be going forward?

Koniver says that as long as you put thought into what you wear and how it will affect your patients’ view of you as well as patient care, you’re probably off to a good start.

“Overall I do think what a doctor wears affects how the patients view them,” said Koniver. “And so doctors would be wise to think about this because how a patient thinks about the doctor affects how much trust the patient puts into the doctor/ patient relationship.”