I absolutely love this post written by Dr. Kristin Prentiss Ott about why she believes we shouldn’t wear white coats to work. To carry on with her sentiment, I thought I’d write a few of my own reasons why I personally chose to ditch my white coat even when required to wear one since completing my internship (except for professional photos, of course). Aside from the fact that I’m a psychiatrist, you’d be surprised to know there are still some hospitals where psychiatrists wear their white coats on the unit (the psychiatric hospital where I did my internship was one of them). I used to think it was a bit odd to wear white coats on the psych ward because the look can be intimidating, but I was an intern at the time so I complied. And yes, I recall asking one of the supervising psychiatrists the reason why white coats were worn and remember being told it was by choice? I may have also been delirious and sleep-deprived at the time, so don’t quote me on that.
The following are the reasons why my white coat remains unworn and in pristine condition hanging in my closet:
1. White Coat Syndrome. Yes, such a syndrome exists and is also known as “White Coat Hypertension.” The condition is self-explanatory: a person’s blood pressure is elevated while in the doctor’s office, but is normal in other situations. I was initially quite surprised to learn that anywhere from 15-30% of people experience the syndrome, though I’d have to say the statistic is quite synonymous (frankly, I believe the percentage is even higher) with my own experiences in practice, especially when meeting patients for the first time.
Though one explanation for the fear-based physiologic response might be the association of hospitals/clinics with disease and illness, I believe psychiatric patients are even more prone to anxiety when in the psychiatrist’s office due to disclosures of more personal information and possibly also from bad experiences with previous doctors who weren’t empathetic to their psychiatric issues.
2. Prioritize the doctor-patient relationship. In a study done in an outpatient psychiatry clinic in Upstate New York, 96% of the patient population surveyed preferred that their psychiatrist not wear a white coat, while 58% did not think it would make a difference in their doctor-patient relationship.
Having an aligned doctor-patient relationship is important in any specialty, but even more so with psychiatry due to the personal content discussed. Due to the pressures of time constraints and also the trend of several behavioral health clinics having patients see whomever random psychiatrist has availability, patients are less likely to establish a therapeutic connection, which I imagine would exacerbate anxiety during each visit. I mean, would you want to re-hash your story to a new psychiatrist during each follow-up appointment (but then again, most psychiatrists don’t have enough time to review your whole history, so sessions become mostly limited to a discussion of symptoms only)? Minimizing any factors that can contribute to anxiety (such as wearing a white coat) would at least help a patient feel more at ease.
3. They’re filthy and teeming with bacteria. I have traits of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), yet vividly recall disgusting moments during internship (where I rotated in various hospital departments) when I knew that my white coat was dingy and long overdue for dry cleaning, yet was way too busy to wash it (think buildup of splattered bodily fluids from various orifices and the numerous times that my white coat sleeves probably brushed my face or came into contact with food I’d scarf down during quick breaks…ewwww). Dr. Ott points out in her post that research has shown that a mere 8 hours of routine patient contact leaves white coats teeming with infectious microbes. These days, the average work week of all medical residents is limited to 80 hours/week and most practicing physicians work an average of 40 to 60 hours/week, which equals a heck of a lot of microbial buildup.
4. Sure, a white coat has maintained its iconicism as a symbol of power, prestige, and intelligence, but a doctor’s identity shouldn’t depend on wearing one. Obviously, I was excited when I received my short white coat during my medical school induction ceremony, but later hated being identified as a novice med student as I walked the hallways of the hospital. Meanwhile, other health professionals from various levels of training wore long white coats indistinguishable from those worn by physicians. After graduating from medical school and transitioning to the longer white coat, I was so excited, yet recognized that I formed too strong of an attachment to my white coat. My dependency on an object didn’t sit well with me. I felt as if I had to wear one in order to possess a sense of worth and importance.
By first acknowledging that I attributed much of my value to an external object (the white coat), I took steps to detach myself from it. I began to curate a wardrobe that conveyed professionalism and my individual sense of style. I made sure that I properly introduced myself to patients and staff, especially when I was mistaken for a nurse or psychotherapist. And I’m not going to lie — initially, I was frustrated by having to correct people on a regular basis, but as I gained confidence in myself (yes, psychotherapy helped) and my skills as a physician, to this day I am rarely ever bothered. Interestingly, I am acknowledged to be a physician far more frequently and I believe it’s because I project a much greater sense of who I am, both personally and professionally. No white coat needed.
PS: A special “thank you” to my friends on Snapchat (freudandfashion) for contributing your opinion when I posed the question of whether or not you’d want your psychiatrist to wear a white coat (11% said “yes” to wearing a white coat and 89% said “no” ).