New medical students all over the country recently slipped on their white lab coats for the first time and got to feel the prestige and honor that this symbol holds. The white lab coat worn by doctors transcends the limits of merely functional workwear, giving the wearer a feeling of confidence and pride in their accomplishments and the knowledge that they are looked up to as among the most trustworthy members of society.
- The pristine white lab coat has served as a symbol for physicians for over 100 years, but up until the late 1800’s doctors wore all black attire to represent the solemn nature of their profession. Black was also the perfect color to hide dirt, blood, and stains.
- Black attire turned to white attire as ideas about antiseptis and a better understanding of bacterial contamination grabbed public attention in the late 1800’s. This field of thought was bolstered by the research of Joseph Lister, a pioneer in antiseptic surgery, and Walter Reed’s written observations of the spread of Malaria amongst workers while building the Panama Canal. Physician attire began to shift towards white fabrics at the end of the 19th century because it was considered an emblem of cleanliness.
- The 1889 masterpiece “The Agnew Clinic” by painter Thomas Eakins was one of the first portrayals of an operating team wearing all white, which represented a transition to a more sanitary work environment. Interestingly, this masterpiece received much criticism as the partially nude patient is a female surrounded by a room of male physicians, and it was rejected from several prominent art academies of the era.
- Before the white lab coat, the field of medicine was publically viewed as being full of haphazard quacks, frauds, and homeopaths. The adoption of the white coat among physicians signaled the transition of medicine to become a well-respected branch of science.
- At first, white coats were used to distinguish trained physicians from homeopaths. The white coat was used as a symbol for physicians to display their commitment to medicine.
- Nuns and religious workers played a crucial role in public healthcare in history, and when physicians transitioned to white coats, the traditional black habits worn by nuns who served as nurses also were traded in for white habits instead.
- “White Coat Hypertension” is used to describe the raise in a patient’s blood pressure due to anxiety upon seeing a doctor present in a white lab coat. But according to Mark S. Hochberg, MD, patients are now viewing the white lab coat more as a “cloak of compassion”.
- A group of researchers once conducted a study during which they had different individuals dressed in identical white lab coats. Some were told it was a painter’s coat; others were told it was a doctor’s coat. After being given a series of tests, it was discovered that on average people who thought themselves dressed in a doctor’s coat performed better than individuals who believed they were wearing a painter’s outfit. This piece of evidence underscores the symbolic value of the white coat associated with prestige and knowledge.
An article from the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology in America suggests that physicians who are directly engaged in patient care should own at least two or more lab coats in order to reduce the risk of bacterial transmission.
The same article published by SHEA also recognized the benefits of physicians wearing white lab coats, finding that patients overall expressed a preference in formal attire and white lab coats for their doctors choice in apparel.
Sources: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/675066#full_text_tab_contents#full_text_tab_contents; http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2009/06/why_do_doctors_wear_white_coats.html; http://www.slideshare.net/prudentialuniform/the-history-of-the-white-lab-coat; http://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/2007/04/mhst1-0704.html#AgnewClinic