The History of the White Coat, Part 1: Why do Providers Wear High Quality White Coats?

By Sarah Bradley

Editor’s Note: At The Good Blog, we strive to be inclusive of all medical professionals, so we will use the term “health care provider” as a catch-all for doctors, advanced practice registered nurses, physician assistants, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, and the many others who wear a custom white coat while caring for patients in a medical setting. And if we do use a specific word for a provider, such as doctor, PA, or APRN, please note that any other provider could easily be substituted in.

If there are two things that are synonymous with the world of medicine, it’s health care providers and white coats. Imagine a hospital setting anywhere in the United States – the doctors navigating the halls, gathering around patients and discussing test results, are wearing white lab coats, right?

Now think about every medical show you’ve ever watched. Grey’s Anatomy. The Good Doctor. Scrubs. ER. Somewhere in the back of your mind, those fictional physicians are scrambling to save lives in (unrealistically) pristine white lab coats, aren’t they? What about in the magazines you read, the prescription medication commercials you watch, the medical group billboards you pass on the highway? Chances are, the providers in those advertisements are all donning white coats, too.

Whether we realize it or not, when we think of health care providers, we think of professional white lab coats. But why? Well, it turns out there’s a long history behind this sartorial choice, and it’s one rooted in tradition, public perception, and in the white coat as a symbol of education and professionalism.

Historical Perspective

To understand why today’s health care providers wear professional white lab coats, we have to go pretty far back in time – before the 19th century, in fact, to when physicians actually wore black as a way of signifying the seriousness and formality of their profession (and also probably to disguise the filth associated with practicing medicine at a time when medical procedures were often crude). You can see this portrayed in an 1875 oil painting by American artist Thomas Eakins titled “The Gross Clinic,” where several physicians dressed in black lab coats are gathered together to operate on a patient.

But according to the AMA Journal of Ethics, something else was happening in the late 1800’s: Joseph Lister, a British surgeon and scientist, was founding antiseptic medicine, and physicians were beginning to understand the importance of preventing bacterial contamination during medical procedures. As they started putting more emphasis on cleanliness and sterility, the color white became a more natural symbol of the profession. 14 years after he produced “The Gross Clinic,” Eakins painted “The Agnew Clinic,” a decidedly more wholesome depiction of the medical profession with the physicians dressed in high quality white lab coats.

Evidence Shows That Patients Prefer Medical Professionals in White Coats

Eakins’ second painting, featuring a closer representation to how we imagine providers should look even today, inspires a higher level of confidence. How much of that is because of the professional white coats? Maybe more than you would think: in a recent study, a vast majority of patients surveyed said they think providers both in and out of hospital settings should wear professional white lab coats, especially. (For the statisticians among us, these findings were significant at the p<0.001 level compared to all other forms of attire.)

Professional White Lab Coats as a Symbol of Education – Always Has Been, Always Will Be

Clearly, the professional white coat imbues its wearer with a certain…something. Education, expertise, and authority, for starters. Originally, physicians swapped their black garments for white ones to convey the importance of cleanliness, but the white coat eventually became elevated as the uniform of choice for the profession because it set educated physicians apart from the crowd. According to an article published by Slate in 2009, the white coat separated “true” physicians (i.e. providers who had received extensive scientific training and study) from lesser-qualified healers or homeopaths. Professional white lab coats are a status symbol as well as one of legitimacy and trustworthiness.

Most of that still holds up today – when your health care provider enters your exam room wearing a white coat, your brain likely makes the mental leap right away that this is a person who knows what they are doing. They have worked hard to get where they are and had their expertise tested, time and time again. You can trust their insights and expertise; you can literally put your health and life in their hands.

Now, do all those points become mute if your provider enters wearing scrubs and a fleece vest branded with their hospital’s logo on it? Not necessarily, although the study we linked to above might suggest otherwise! But the white coat isn’t treating you, the person wearing it is. And if your provider wears a professional white coat but has terrible bedside manner, you’re not likely to put a lot of faith in his or her ability to take care of you. At the end of the day, most patients want a mix of competency and compassion above all else.

The Professional Lab Coat as Superhero Cape

But putting on a high-quality, modern, and professional white lab coat can help your provider with their own self-image, too. In a guest post published at the Women in White Coats blog, Dr. Archana Shrestha explains how the custom white coat helps her get into “character” when she goes to work.

“Aside from doctor, I’m also a wife, mother, daughter, sister, entrepreneur, author, and fitness and nutrition coach. But when I don the white coat, I step into my alter ego as Emergency Physician, ready to save lives,” she says. “It’s like a switch flips in my mind and I stop thinking about all that may be going on at home with my family, or in my relationships with friends or with my other businesses.”

The Practical Side of Wearing a White Coat

As if all those reasons for wearing a white coat are not enough, there’s practical reasons for donning the garb every day, too. It protects a provider’s clothes from the bodily fluids which, let’s face it, are an occupational hazard (and on a white coat will be pretty hard to miss, signaling exactly when it’s time for a good laundering). They also offer a fair amount of storage space for all the things a provider carries around from patient to patient: stethoscope, iPhone, tablet, patient list, pager, snacks…the list goes on.

A Garment Loaded with Meaning

Though not every provider out there is a fan of the professional white coat (and some are vocally anti-coat…more on that in part three of this series!), you can’t argue with the fact that it has a fascinating history that evolved right alongside the medical profession itself. Far from a random choice, the white coat is a garment loaded with symbolism.

Designing and Crafting State-of-the-Art Professional White Lab Coats for a Modern Medical World

Despite constantly-changing attitudes about what’s considered acceptable workplace attire for medical professionals, it’s not likely that the white coat will disappear anytime soon…and we here at The Good Coat don’t want it to! Instead, we have worked to completely modernize the basic white coat, bringing it into the 21st century with design features that are practical, comfortable, and customizable. On our high-quality, smartly-designed lab coats for men and women, you’ll find:

  • Breathable, technical fabric with a hint of stretch for supreme comfort;
  • Antimicrobial fabric and rollable sleeves to minimize infection-transmission risk;
  • Reinforced stitching and seams for extra durability;
  • Lots of smartly-sized pockets for storage; and
  • An overall refined, polished style.

For more information about the design features of our smart, modern, functional, high-quality lab coats, contact us today!