I never enter the Emergency Department to work a shift without first putting on my white coat, hospital badge, stethoscope and my glasses. (The glasses I feel make me look more scholarly and bookish and therefore make me fit the part of doctor better.) Occasionally I take off the white coat to do procedures and when I do, I must say I feel rather naked sort of like a turtle without its shell or a football player without his padding.
Some of my colleagues choose not to wear a white coat, but as a young woman physician I have always opted to wear it for a variety of reasons.
First it lets patients know that I am indeed their doctor and not their nurse. Even though it is 2019, the stereotype of a female nurse and a male doctor is still in the minds of some of our patients. When a patient comes into our ER, they interact with at least 2-3 other people wearing scrubs before I even have a chance to say hello to them. Yes, we all wear badges and introduce ourselves and who we are, but there is nothing like a bright white coat, a symbol of a doctor, to make the distinction clear. And it’s not that I feel my role as their doctor is more important than the role of the other team members, but I don’t want the patient leaving thinking they were never seen by the doctor.
But beyond that you must look the part of the doctor. The coat helps me do that. It symbolizes the education, training and experience as a doctor. It gives a formality to our relationship. It also helps me delineate the multiple roles I have. 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. It’s like Clark Kent transforming into Superman, Serena Williams, the mother, stepping into Serena the champion tennis player, or Shaun Blocker the father and family man transforming into Shaun T, the super trainer of Insanity. We all have an alter ego that we step into when the need arises. When I wear my white coat, 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. And I put the patient first and helping them above all other roles in that moment.
My white coat is a chance to make a first impression. When I walk in wearing a crisp and gleaming white coat (like the Medelita one I’m wearing in this picture) it stands out. And even though my hair may look average, and I tend not to wear makeup and I may be wearing scrubs that don’t exactly match, the white coat steals the show and distracts from any other short comings. My name and title is embroidered on my coat and if anyone in the room is unclear as to who I am, they just have to look at the name on the coat to know that I earned with a lot of sweat and toil those two extra initials. M. D. that come after my name. Furthermore, one study of 400 people showed that patients trust their doctors more and have more confidence in them when they are professionally dressed wearing a white coat. Anything I can do to establish more trust and rapport with my patients in the emergency department is well worth it.
The final reason that I wear a white coat is that at the end of every shift, no matter how crazy, sad, tragic or benign I take it off and hang it up. I let go of the ups and downs of my shift as an emergency physician. It is a symbolic gesture and reminder to myself to let it all go, to leave the work stress at work and not take it home with me. I take off my glasses and stethoscope too and put them in my work bag. I breath a sigh of relief that it is all over. I drive home to my family and decompress along the way home. Then when I walk in the door to be with my family, I can be truly present with them.
If you are a woman doctor, do you wear your white coat? Why or why not?
Archana Shrestha, MD is a practicing emergency physician in Chicago. She is coauthor of “The Chronicles of Women in White Coats” and Cofounder of WomenInWhiteCoats.com. She is also an online health and fitness coach. Her healthy living lifestyle blog can be found at MightyMomMD.com and she can be followed on Instagram @MightyMomMD