Looking Like a Doctor

A new report from University of Michigan Health System researchers offers some perspective on doctor dress. Generally, the study found that patients "prefer their physicians dress on the formal side-and definitely not in casual wear."

“Fashion fades, style is eternal.”

—Coco Chanel

It’s something that is seared into my memory forever—the morning that my physician-dad awoke me to tell of a terrible accident.

My 19-year-old sister Claire had been killed in an auto wreck the evening before. The time was November 1971 and I was just 11 years old. Back then dad was in his prime as a “prominent physician” and living an exceptionally good life.

Something of a rebel, Claire was the oldest of our family’s 8 children (but that’s another story). She had been out celebrating her birthday with friends the night she died. To this day, I don’t know how dad summoned up the courage to tell his 2 youngest sons (my 9-year-old brother Charlie slept on my floor that night) so heart-breaking a story. But he did and all while in a suit and tie.

For me that was the truest gauge of how he thought a doctor should look—even on the worst day of his life. My father certainly believed that the suit-and-tie look was the right way to go for his work and, indeed, for much of his life. He was brought up that way. “Always look like a professional,” was his advice to me.

I can’t say how he felt about the dress habits of others doctors. In his day, though, it was very few doctors at all who did not wear a suit and tie. In fact, I don’t believe there was ever a time when dad did not wear suit and tie while in his office or when making hospital rounds.

He would wear them while attending pro football games, he could easily fall asleep in jacket and tie, and we have film of him suited up while playing in the yard with us kids. And he always looked comfortable that way.

A new report from University of Michigan Health System researchers offers some perspective on doctor dress. Generally, the study found that patients “prefer their physicians dress on the formal side—and definitely not in casual wear.” And this is with or without the doctor’s traditional white hospital coat.

The survey also found that young doctors seldom, if ever, get any guidance on how to dress. My father had a lot of help there. Although he had a good sense of style, my mom had an amazing talent for it. A former fashion buyer for a major New York City department store, my mother knew quality clothing. Her sartorial sense ran from buying high-quality men’s suits for $10 in Rumson, NJ, (a top-15 “America’s wealthiest neighborhood”) to seemingly keeping Brook Brothers (the nation’s oldest men's clothier chain) in business.

The study's lead author, Christopher Petrilli, MD, an IM resident in Michigan, offered a wise summary: "If physician attire has even a marginal impact on how some patients feel toward their provider, leads to any increase on compliance with medication or other instruction from a physician, prevents a hospitalization, or increases patient satisfaction, then dressing professionally becomes worthwhile in itself.”

First and foremost, dad wanted to build trust with his patients and that began with fulfilling their expectations as to how he should appear as a physician. He succeeded for 50 years. Not a bad legacy.