It’s easy to spot a uniformed police officer simply by paying attention to the clothing he/she wears. The same is true for firefighters, utility workers, and a host of other workers we’re all familiar with. It is even true of the doctor. We are all so used to seeing doctors wearing white lab coats that we consider the coats part of the uniform, so to speak. Whether we were visiting with a primary care physician or a locum filling in at the hospital, we just expect to see a lab coat.
To understand the importance of the white lab coat, U.S. News & World Report did a bit of in-depth research covering everything from the history of medical garb to a survey done to determine whether patients really care. What they discovered was rather surprising.
According to the report, here are four interesting facts about the doctor’s white lab coat:
1. Black, Not White
The lab coat’s predecessor was a standard overcoat anyone might wear on the street. Apparently, 17th century doctors wore full-length overcoats along with gloves and wide-brimmed hats during plague outbreaks. They also wore masks filled with pungent herbs in the belief that said herbs would prevent them from getting sick themselves.
It’s interesting to note that doctors chose black or other dark colors back then as well. Dark colors were seen as better for warding off the kinds of things that make people ill.
2. Lab Coats Equal Science
U.S. News & World Report says that the medical community began adopting white lab coats in the 1800s as a means of adding legitimacy to what they did. In earlier centuries, medicine had very little to do with science. Hence the belief that dark colors and pungent herbs could protect against illness. Once science began making its way into medicine, doctors figured that white lab coats would make them look more like scientists than soothsayers.
Lab coats were worn only by operating room personnel at first. Eventually though, the lab coat made it out of the operating room and into the doctor’s office. It was apparently at that time that doctors also started wearing stethoscopes around their necks, just for a good measure.
3. Lab Coats Don’t Prevent Disease
Despite public perception, there is no evidence that lab coats prevent the spread of disease. This despite the fact that the UK’s National Health Service instituted a policy in 2008 requiring doctors to where short-sleeved scrubs in order to decrease the chances of their clothing coming in contact with patients.
Studies have routinely shown that doctors are more likely to spread disease using their hands. That’s why there is such a push to educate people about the importance of washing their hands. As for clothing, infectious diseases rarely spread in clinical settings through casual contact with it.
4. Patients Do Care
Lastly, the previously mentioned study showed that patients do care about lab coats. The study, conducted by Michigan researchers, determined that people have a more positive view of doctors dressed in white lab coats and scrubs. Those doctors appear to be more professional and competent.
The results of the patient study make sense. We human beings are visual creatures that tend to attach a certain amount of importance to those images our brains take in every day. We are all accustomed to doctors wearing lab coats and scrubs, so seeing a doctor dressed in any other way doesn’t work well with what our brains expect to see. As such, doctors without lab coats and scrubs just don’t seem as professional.