Casual attire is becoming more popular among physicians, but according to a survey conducted in the US, patients still prefer white coats. The survey results published in JAMA Network Open revealed that patients regard physicians in casual attire such as a fleece jacket in place of a white coat as less professional and less experienced.

The  survey also revealed that casual clothing led to misidentification of roles, particularly among female physicians, and that female physicians were often rated as less professional than their male counterparts, even when wearing a white coat.

“The findings of the study suggest that female physicians are less likely than male physicians to be identified as physicians and more likely to be misidentified as nurses, medical technicians or physician assistants,” Jordan P. Steinberg, MD, PhD, of the department of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and colleagues wrote. “This misconception may be associated with prevailing stereotypes.”

“The public’s increased exposure to male physicians and female nurses contributes to the formation of gender-based professional stereotypes and associated biases,” they wrote.

Steinberg and colleagues conducted a population-based survey through the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform from May 2020 to June 2020. The survey cohort was comprised of 487 adults in the US. The mean age of respondents was 36.2 years; 53.4% were women.

The respondents provided answers on a five-point Likert scale about where and how often they see healthcare professionals wearing white coats, scrubs, fleece-blended sweaters or vests and softshell jackets, and the most important attributes in a healthcare professional: experience, professionalism or friendliness.

Respondents also ranked on a six-point Likert scale the experience level, professionalism and friendliness of professionals in a series of photographs that showed models wearing various healthcare attire. Their preferences for healthcare attire were based on a professional’s role, which included nurse, technician, phlebotomist, family physician, dermatologist and surgeon.

Perceptions and gender bias

The majority of respondents reported seeing healthcare practitioners in white coats “most of the time” (42.5%), in scrubs “sometimes” (36.6%) and in fleece and softshell jackets “rarely” (37%), according to the researchers. While a practitioner in a white coat was perceived as more experienced (mean professionalism score: 4.9 for white coat vs. 3.1 for fleece jacket vs. 3.3 for softshell jacket; P < .001), a practitioner in a softshell jacket appeared more friendly to respondents (mean friendliness score: 3.6 for white coat vs. 3.1 for softshell; P < .003).

Older respondents were significantly more likely than younger respondents to perceive a model in a white coat with business attire underneath as having more experience (P < .009). Also, Steinberg and colleagues reported that fleece jackets with scrubs underneath reduced professionalism. Most respondents reported a preference for surgeons wearing a white coat with scrubs underneath and, for family physicians and dermatologists, a white coat with business attire underneath (P < .001).

When comparing men and women, respondents perceived a male model wearing business attire with any outerwear item as significantly more professional than a female model wearing the same attire (mean professionalism score: 65.8 for men vs. 56.2 for women). When shown photos of models wearing only hospital or fashion scrubs, respondents still perceived the male model as more professional than the female model (P < .001). Moreover, male models in white coats with business innerwear were more likely to be identified as a physician than female models in the same attire (88.3% for men vs. 71.7% for women; P < .001), according to Steinberg and colleagues.

“The white coat still has powerful symbolism, and ‘white coat ceremonies’ continue to be a rite of passage for medical students. Our study seems to indicate that, despite this, the white coat does little to address the problems of role misidentification and gender bias, particularly as (a) more and more clinical personnel these days may be offered white coats to wear, and (b) many hospital or office personnel have come to prefer casual wear,” Steinberg told Healio Primary Care. “In the COVID-19 era, where there again is heightened emphasis on disinfection, infrequently laundered white coats may also be disfavoured.”

He added that the research team suspected that gender bias and physician role misidentifications would persist “irrespective of formal vs. casual wear.”