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Is the Tradition of Wearing White Lab Coats Dying?

“No matter if you are a proponent for or against physicians wearing the white coat; it is difficult to deny that it remains a universally recognized symbol of the profession.” –Leah Lawrence

The white coat has been a traditional symbol of the medical profession since the late 1900’s. Televisions, movies, commercials and illustrations all often describe doctors in a white coat, most likely with a stethoscope slung around the neck. It is an easily recognized “uniform” of the profession that says, “I am a doctor.”

The white coat served a few practical roles, mostly figurative. First, the white was meant to symbolize life, purity and hope as black was widely distinguished as a color of death or mourning. Doctors started wearing these white lab coats around the turn of the 20th century for the scientific credibility.

On the other hand, a question lies on the table to be discussed. Is the tradition of wearing these white coats dying?

In view of this, the AMA or American Medical Association is considering a proposal to follow the lead of the British National Health System by recommending against the use of white coats by physicians. The Brits have a “bare below the elbows” policy to help prevent infections. Supposedly physician lab jackets carry too many germs and contribute to the incidence of infections – although there is little data directly linking white coats to incidence of infections. The NY Times article does cite one study in which 48% of a small sampling of physician’s ties had some type of infectious organism on them. This case shows but a single to reason that wearing white lab coats are not preferable for work.

In other cases, Gregory M. Vercellotti, MD recalled and stated, “I felt like a waiter, in those days students wore short coats and I felt just like I was a waiter. By wearing it though, you feel that you’re a part of a profession, that you have a responsibility for caring for the patient,” he said.

He also said that the white coat has a more practical purpose as well: It has “In the old days, we all had our “peripheral brain’’ which was a bunch of notes and notebooks. Now you can carry your personal digital assistant, your stethoscope, etc. So it is in fact very useful to have those pockets. Vercelloti, on the other hand had experience dissatisfaction of how the white lab coat made him look but he also stated that today, it is very useful with the functional pockets.

In addition, few years ago, a study our of Britain found that most patients wanted their doctors to wear white coats but a more recent study has found that American patients, don’t care what doctors wear as long as they provide good care. In fact, the study suggested that the formal white coat get-up can create a barrier between the doctor and the patient which may hamper treatment.

However, these are just studies and opinions of different professionals involved in wearing these white lab coats. These are cases in which we can ponder on whether we are in the same profession or not. Wearing white lab coats has its advantages and disadvantages. It protects the wearer from harmful substances and it can carry infectious organisms that may compromise their health and the others as well.

But in all equality, these white lab coats have been around for decades and I think wearing it as a tradition isn’t going to die that quickly. White lab coats are symbols of individuality, profession, character and purity. As for doctors, they wear these coats not just by reason of working with appropriate wardrobes but it is a symbol of pride and prestige.

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About Timotheo Lorenzo F