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Should Physicians Wear a White Coat? It Depends on Who You Ask

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

More than half of physicians (54%) believe they should wear a white coat, according to the results of a Doximity poll. The poll, conducted in August 2023, includes the responses of 4,215 physicians.

Physicians are not alone in this belief: Research shows that a slight majority of patients also prefer that physicians wear a white coat. In a 2018 BMJ Open study, 53% of patients indicated that physician attire was important to them during care, rating the white coat most highly. And a 2021 study in JAMA found that patients viewed physicians wearing white coats as more experienced and professional than those wearing fleece or softshell jackets. 

And yet, physician attire has certainly changed over the years, with many preferring to wear scrubs or other garb. So do physicians think the white coat should remain? The answer to this question depends on several factors. 


Though as a whole, physicians appear to be almost evenly split on the topic, a clear trend emerges by age: Older physicians are much more likely than younger physicians to support wearing a white coat. 

The poll results show that only 34% of physicians 29 and younger believe that physicians should wear a white coat, compared with 40% in their 30s, 45% in their 40s, 56% in their 50s, 65% in their 60s, and 75% in their 70s and older.

Introducing the white coat to medical students earlier, through the white coat ceremony and transition from short coat to long coat during later training, may make it hold less importance to them as physicians later on.

“Younger physicians have a longer history with the white coat,” said retired cardiothoracic surgeon Daniel Waters, DO. “The white coat ceremony did not exist when I entered medical school in 1978.” 

He added that, as a result, younger physicians are “less caught up with the trappings of the profession. White coats are going the way of neckties. One might put one on for a special occasion, but who needs all those pockets anymore?” 

“It's much easier to wear scrubs and a jacket than deal with the hassle of the white coat, which doesn't match the laid-back dynamic many younger physicians have with their patients and colleagues,” said Kaleigh Roberts, MD, PhD, a pathologist who graduated from medical school in 2020. 

Tina Chu, MD, a pediatrician in San Diego who graduated from medical school in 2015, shared that white coats "historically were more of a symbol for physicians and could help identify who the physician was. Nowadays, more team members such as pharmacists, nurses, and technicians wear white coats, which may make wearing a white coat as a physician less meaningful.”


Across the specialties that responded to the poll, pathologists have the strongest preference for a white coat (79%). Other specialties that have a strong preference for a white coat include neurosurgery (75%), cardiology (70%), infectious disease (70%), and thoracic surgery (68%). 

As to why pathologists prefer to wear a white coat, Dr. Roberts speculated, “Maybe because the day to day of pathology is so different from other medical specialties, some pathologists cling to the coat as a way of validating their physician role. Perhaps our roles in the hospital laboratories (where many nonphysician employees wear white coats) also contribute.” She added, “I personally dust mine off a few times a year to lend formality to big presentations.”

In contrast, pediatricians are the least likely to say that physicians should wear a white coat (35%). “The white coat can be very imposing to a young child,” Dr. Chu explained. “Many children, especially in the toddler age range, may have a level of doctor/stranger anxiety and the white coat can worsen this fear. Usually, I have found that by not wearing my white coat, I can be seen as more approachable to my pediatric population. If not wearing a white coat can lead to less tears and crying during a physical exam, I am all for it.”

Other specialties less interested in wearing a white coat include pediatric cardiology (40%), PM&R (42%), emergency medicine (43%), and orthopaedic surgery (45%). 


Compared to men (55%), women were slightly more likely (57%) to say that a physician should wear a white coat. “Some [physicians] may feel that the white coat is empowering, especially for groups of people historically less represented in medicine such as women and minorities,” Dr. Chu offered as an explanation.

Will the white coat ever go away? The data seem to point toward no, but many physicians, including Drs. Waters, Roberts, and Chu, have relegated theirs to the backs of their closets. 

“People jokingly say that you can identify the doctors by their Patagonia fleeces while the rest of the care team is wearing white coats,” Dr. Roberts said. 

All three physicians, however, relayed the importance of the white coat to the profession and its history. 

“For certain events and in certain situations, it's a nice reminder of our heritage,” Dr. Waters said.

Daniel Waters, DO, Kaleigh Roberts, MD, PhD, and Tina Chu, MD have no conflicts of interest to report.

Image by filo / GettyImages

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