Physician Outlook

Dressing for Work…What’s the Code

Code blue, code red, code black, dress code? In this “The Script Pad” installment Dr. Cook questions how physicians, surgeons and healthcare professionals should dress. While dress code standards have evolved over the years patients still have the final word in impacting what you are going to take out of your closet. Cook shares his tips for what to wear based on your situation and how you might be perceived.


I’ve reached an age where it’s abundantly clear that most of my life is in the rearview mirror.  One of the more rewarding aspects of maturity is that people occasionally are (or pretend to be) interested in my opinion on any number of things.  The assumption seems to be that since I’ve seen a thing or two, perhaps I know a thing or two.  The irony is that the longer I live, the more inclined I am to be respectful of other points of view.  With that preamble, I’m offering here a few thoughts on proper attire in the workplace, and more specifically, the healthcare workplace.  It certainly goes without saying that over the four decades that I practiced medicine, much has changed.  When I entered this profession, staging of Hodgkin’s disease required a xyphoid to pubis incision.  Today, that can be accomplished by tracking glucose metabolism within the patient…aka, a PET scan.  There’s no denying that many of the old ways should be abandoned.  Deciding what goes and what stays can often lead to some heated debate.


Now clearly, deciding what to wear to work doesn’t carry the same level of importance as deciding how to stage cancer.  Even so, it might have an effect on the course of one’s career, and there is actually some evidence to support the notion that a physician’s personal appearance has a significant effect on the doctor-patient relationship.  In 2018, the open access publication BMJ Open published results of an observational study on how patients prefer their physicians to dress.Interestingly, a substantial number of respondents indicated their preference for a physician in fairly traditional dress, i.e. dress shirt with tie, dark trousers, leather shoes, and a white coat.  Similarly styled feminine dress was likewise preferred for the ladies.  Surgeons were deemed acceptable in scrubs covered by a white coat.  That’s not really a dramatic change from the status quo of forty years ago, although we were sternly advised not to be seen in scrubs outside the OR suite except in the most urgent emergency.  That surprised me a little bit, especially considering evolving dress codes in the business world.  Casual Friday has given way to ‘come as you are’ in lots of businesses, especially in the tech industry.  But patients still seem to be holding their physicians to a slightly higher standard.  


Despite the apparently higher standards of dress in the healthcare world, I have observed quite a variability of style, both in the hospital and in the office/clinic setting.  I’ve even spotted physicians rounding in shorts and flip-flops on rare occasions.  My take on this is that you can certainly get away with more casual dress while working in healthcare, but it’s probably a good idea to consider the message you’ll be sending.  So, I submit the following for your consideration:


If your domain is the office/clinic setting, e.g. some type of primary care, your dress code can probably be a bit more relaxed.  In these settings, you’re likely to be building a relationship with patients over years or even decades.  That means your patients will have a better opportunity to learn more about just what type of a human you are.  Your opportunity to project a persona of knowledgeability and compassion will have room to grow and will be influenced more by your behavior than your personal appearance.


On the other hand, if your practice is more of a consultant role, the way you meet the eye will have a much more profound influence.  Your time with patient and family will be compressed and the need to make important decisions will put them under considerable stress.  In those situations, if your style of dress suggests disregard for “the rules”, your ability to inspire confidence might be compromised, especially when things are not going so well.


Last but not least, if you aspire to a position of leadership, especially within a hospital or large healthcare organization, it’s probably best to stick to a more traditional dress code.  Such organizations typically are dealing with enormous challenges of rising expenses and diminishing revenues.  They are inhabited by people with little respect for what your clinical skills might bring to the table and they are likely to consider you to be ill-suited to make lofty decisions in the business world.  If your manner of dress suggests “risk taker”, it may be harder to win their confidence.


In summary, the “dress code” is unquestionably more malleable now than it was just a few decades ago, but make no mistake, people will judge a book by its cover.  Consider your risks carefully.




To read more of Dr. Randy Cook's blog "The Script Pad" go to Dr. Cook is also host of MD Coaches, LLC's weekly Rx for Success Podcast found at

MD Coaches, LLC is a company dedicated to developing and empowering physicians to realize a greater satisfaction in their roles. Understanding the challenges and operational concerns for both physicians and hospital administrators. MD Coaches utilizes experience and coaching skils to support their physician clients in establishing strategies for positive career progression.

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