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A Doctor Wrestles With Whether To Keep Wearing His White Coat

Lorenzo Gritti for NPR
Lorenzo Gritti for NPR
Lorenzo Gritti for NPR
Lorenzo Gritti for NPR

I remember being handed a white coat during my first year of medical school. It came crisply folded in a cellophane bag. I was told to wear it anytime we were in the hospital or with patients as a sign of respect.

There was no pomp about it. I took it home and tried it on. It was like putting on a costume and pretending to play doctor. The white coat continued to feel that way to me for a long time.

Over the years, the costume has become second nature and part of my clinical identity. I slip it on when I'm seeing patients, because when I've asked, most of them tell me they prefer it. The coat provides a mutual comfort to us both.

My, how times have changed. Now the vast majority of the nation's medical schools (along with more than 700 nursing schools and physician assistant programs) host special white coat ceremonies, in which new students are welcomed into their profession with a solemn ceremony invoking commitment to the healing arts. White coats are formally offered to students, and put on them by their school's leadership.

These ceremonies present an opportunity for the students and their families to mark the beginning of health careers in an educational and professional crucible that will challenge their ideals, empathy and compassion. "The iconography, the ritual of holding up members of the profession in this time of change must be maintained," says Dr. Richard Levin, president and CEO of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, whose mission is to promote and maintain humanism in health care.

Now in the role of medical educator myself, I find anything that helps students stay connected with their highest ideals valuable in imparting a sense of professionalism. That's why it's disconcerting to think that our white coats are being challenged as possible vectors of infection.

A group of doctors in the field of infectious diseases has begun to rally around a mantra of "bare below the elbows," suggesting that health professionals avoid wearing white coats altogether, as is the custom in the U.K.

It turns out we don't wash the things nearly enough.

In a piece titled "It's Time for Doctors to Hang up their White Coats for Good," Boston-based infectious diseases specialist Philip Lederer argues that white coats have outlived their usefulness, both as guardians of cleanliness and as symbols of the profession.

Studies demonstrate the presence of harmful bacteria on our white coats, though evidence of direct harm to patients is lacking.

"We don't need a randomized trial to prove that parachutes save lives," Lederer told me. He prefers wearing khakis and dress shirts with the sleeves rolled up; no tie. He mentioned other docs who favor vests for their pockets and warmth, a trend some hope will catch on. And while Lederer supports the idea of a humanism-themed ceremony to welcome students into the profession, he and others suggest that even as a symbol white coats are more of a barrier than a conduit to strong doctor-patient relationships.

Levin counters that with all of the changes in health care, people in the field feel a tremendous sense of dislocation. "The idea of taking away [professional status] rather than elevating it is a problem for health care," he said. But taking away the coats wouldn't necessarily be a blow, he said, pointing to a study that challenges the notion that white coats are fundamentally elitist.

The debate over white coats has forced me to consider my own practice. In the end, I think the issue is as much about generational change as it is about infection control. I'd give up my white coat instantly if I knew it was spreading harmful bacteria. But colonization with bacteria is different from transmitting them to another person.

Bacteria live on all of us, so are white coats necessarily worse than our other garments or even our own skin?

It's likely that this debate will continue, unless patients were to somehow come to consensus on what they want doctors to wear. And that's not likely to happen anytime soon.

Until then, I vow to wash my white coat more frequently.

John Henning Schumann is a writer and doctor in Tulsa, Okla. He serves as president of the University of Oklahoma, Tulsa. He also hosts Public Radio Tulsa's Medical Matters. He's on Twitter: @GlassHospital