Do the clothes make the doctor?

Veterinary medicine is a dirty job. I’m not talking about unethical behaviors or illicit activities. I’m speaking in a very literal sense, referencing the countless pungent, projectile bodily eliminations, oozing wounds, parasite-infested hair coats, and traumatic injuries we encounter on a daily basis.

All of our patients are adorable, but many of them have hygiene standards on par with a college freshman living away from home for the first time. It doesn’t help that animals notoriously enjoy repulsive activities like rolling in dead things, eating their own poop, and sticking their noses in places they shouldn’t.

As such, veterinarians tend to dress for the part. At the end of the day, we know at minimum that we’ll be covered in a shaggy covering of fur. On the worst of days we’ll have changed our clothes several times before heading home.

Scrubs are the collective uniform of choice for veterinarians, especially prevalent amongst emergency doctors and surgeons. Otherwise, their clothing is typically kept on the “way casual” spectrum of style. Depending on the clinic, lab coats may be the norm, or they may be shunned.

For those attending to our large animal or equine species, practicality often overshadows fashion sense, with “durable” and “waterproof” being the foremost important adjectives for their outfits.

When it comes to dressing for work, I tend to sway in the opposite direction from the “norms” of my profession. I happen to like wearing nice clothes and shoes (and handbags and accessories). I don’t care much for designer threads, but I do appreciate wearing pretty things, including dresses, skirts, heels, costume jewelry, etc., and I enjoy coordinating my outfits with my moods or with the season.

I’ve never ascribed to the idea that my career choice would doom me to a life of drawstring scrub pants or roomy sweatshirts. But this doesn’t mean I spend a fortune on clothes. I’m much too frugal for such behavior, and I’m a realist about the grubby nature of my job. Yet I still struggle to look my best, even while attempting to mask the piquant scent of anal glands that have been inadvertently expressed into my hair.

I’ve had a few owners comment that they think I’m the best-dressed veterinarian they’ve ever seen. Rather than come across as a compliment, I’ve found their tone judgmental, suggesting my clothing somehow imparts a lack of credibility, or even a sense of mistrust about my capabilities.

Do people care how their doctors dress? Does the attire of a medical professional influence a patient’s confidence of their knowledge? Could something seemingly as innocuous as clothing make one doctor more or less credible than another in the eyes of their patients?

A study by a University of Michigan Health System team attempted to answer those questions by examining the influence of physician attire on patient opinions, including trust, satisfaction, and confidence

The study, cleverly titled “Understanding the role of physician attire on patient perceptions: a systematic review of the literature—targeting attire to improve likelihood of rapport (TAILOR) investigators” compiled data from a comprehensive international review, from studies and other sources, on physician attire. In all, the data they reviewed came from 30 studies involving 11,533 adult patients in 14 countries.

Results from the study showed patients preferred their physicians dress formally and not casually. Male and female physicians who wore suits or a white lab coat were more likely to inspire trust and confidence in their patients.

Fashion takes a back seat when it comes to emergency, surgical, or critical care, where data show clothing don’t matter as much and patients prefer to see such doctors in scrubs.

Age and nationality also played a role in patients’ perceptions. Europeans and Asians of any age, as well as Americans over age 50, trust formally dressed physicians more than their casually dressed counterparts. Americans in Generation X and Y tended to accept less-dressy physicians more willingly.

Whether the results of the study translate to veterinary medicine is unknown. I suppose we have more interesting things to research about animal care than whether it makes a difference how a pet’s doctor dresses. Personal experience tells me an owner’s expectation for how their veterinarians dress is less stringent than for their human counterparts.

Despite a lack of evidence-based information and my own personal experience, I choose to take the results of the TAILOR study to heart and plan on continuing to wear my nice clothes to work. I know it’s important to constantly present myself as a professional, and part of that means I need to continue dressing up for my job.

And I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a firm believer that looking down at my feet and seeing a darling pair of shiny new shoes helps negate any minor aggravations I encounter during the day.


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