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Do You Care How Your Doctor Dresses?

Does how a doctor dresses effect a patient’s perspective of their skills? In a paper just published in British Medical Journal Open, a University of Michigan Health System team has compiled a super-comprehensive collection of info on the topic gathered from 30 studies involving 11,533 adult patients in 14 countries. The team also plans on launching their own international study: “Targeting Attire to Improve Likelihood of Rapport”—or TAILOR. (I see what your did there, you sassy scientists!) What they’ve found so far is fascinating.

While it seems logical that a slovenly appearance would make a patient uneasy, the perception that a well-dressed doc is more capable and professional does not appear to be universal. There are cultural and generational differings of opinion. As Science Daily reports, “In general, Europeans and Asians of any age, and Americans over age 50, trusted a formally dressed doctor more, while Americans in Generation X and Y tended to accept less-dressy physicians more willingly.”


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Personally, I’ve only especially taken note of my doctor’s clothes when I visited a specialist who wore a right-off-the-runway dress to give me an exam. True story! The dress she had on easily cost over $1000 and she was wearing it with latex gloves. Weeks later, when I had to have surgery, she came to my hospital bed wearing a dress with fur-trimmed sleeves. At this point, I was already on sleepy drugs, so I laughed uncontrollably at the ultra-fancy sight of her. I’m told she did change into scrubs for the surgery itself, but I never saw her in them, so I like to imagine her still wearing that dress and maybe also a jewel-studded caplet and a little crown when she did the deed. (Excellent surgeon, BTW.)

My sharp-dressed surgeon aside, this study also reminded me of another anecdote. I’d read years ago that it was important for patients to dress well for a doctor’s appointment to get the MD to really listen to their concerns. I hadn’t really thought about it since until a few months ago when, as a new freelancer, I went to a late afternoon appointment makeup-free and in gym gear (I was planning to run home). Suddenly, a doctor who I’d previously had a great rapport with while wearing just-came-from-the-office work skirts treated me really differently. Once I’d had my vitals taken, there was a long gap before I was seen by him. (Because I clearly had nowhere to get to?) His greeting to me unusually cold. During the exam, when I—clad in a Celtics t-shirt, leggings, and a messy ponytail—told him my insurance would change soon because I was phasing out my corporate-chosen plan, he even railed into me about how I would have no job security and being a freelancer would prove a huge mistake. He followed that up by saying I’d regret not having kids later in life. “Um, cool. Can I get my zit cream refilled now?” Visual cues play a huge role in our interaction with others for better and worse. (And clearly that dude is also just kind of a jerk.)

Have you ever been impressed or unimpressed by a doctor’s clothes? Or felt judged by them over how you were dressed?

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