Lab Coats and Latex
by William D. Esteb
Roofers and carpet layers often wear knee protection. Ranchers wear chaps to protect their pants. Football players wear helmets and pads. Lawyers show up in court wearing a suit and tie. What should a chiropractor wear? And does it really matter?
Perhaps it starts in the chiropractic college clinic, in which stature or identity is revealed by the wearing or color of the lab coat. Or maybe it starts by echoing the attire of the chiropractor who inspired you to go to chiropractic college. Or perhaps you have not given much thought to this seemingly insignificant issue.
I would like to suggest that it matters, a lot.
First, a little history. The lab coat is a carryover from the medical profession. In centuries past, medicine was a bloody business and lab coats served the important function of keeping patient blood from ruining the doctor’s topcoat. These days, you probably don’t have much of an occasion to worry about blood spatter in your office.
But the tradition continues. Most medical doctors continue to wear white lab coats so others can readily identify their social position. In this way everyone knows that this man or woman is a doctor, and not a nurse or the patient’s spouse or lawyer. This creates a convenient social order in a hospital setting (and opportunities for impersonation in which movie scripts call for the main character to change into a doctor’s garb in a nearby unlocked janitor’s closet).
In a chiropractic setting, the clothing worn by the doctor (and staff) reveals the “tone” and intent of the office. These may seem like subtle or even unimportant distinctions to those who haven’t considered the implications of their office costume, but they send powerful signals to patients. If you’ve ever attended a social function in which you were either under- or over-dressed, you’re already familiar with the importance of, and even the neurological effects of, what we wear.
So if form follows function, one could make the case that what you wear affects what you do in the office and conversely, what you do should affect what you wear. And this is where the self-image and emotional health of the chiropractor come into play. What do you see as your function?
If you see your role as similar to that of other types of doctors, but with merely an emphasis on spinal health, then looking like other types of doctors makes perfect sense. If you see your role as a facilitator that helps unleash the “doctor” within each patient, then new possibilities of what constitutes appropriate dress arise. Each has its pros and cons. Both approaches add tremendous value to patients. And both models are working in both modest and large chiropractic offices around the world. The more important question is, what approach is congruent with your purpose and intention when you see a patient?
Some chiropractors use the social convention of wearing a lab coat as a way to properly dress for the role and responsibility they intend to play in the lives of their patients. In the same way that monks touching a doorknob to enter the sanctuary say a prayer, some chiropractors put on their white coats to change their consciousness from parent and spouse to doctor and healer.
Others see it as a way to produce respect or invoke social privilege by literally “wearing” their hard-earned diploma. This serves as a way to display their knowledge and accomplishment to those they serve. It becomes part of the “performance,” ritual and ceremony of the office visit.
Wear dress slacks and a golf shirt (or the female equivalent) to the office and you may hear, “Are you the doctor?” Or, “Looking pretty comfy today, doc.”
Many patients expect “doctors” to look a particular way. Succumbing to patient expectations is another motive for “looking” like a doctor. While certainly expedient, this is where destructive contradictions show up. What is your intention when accepting a new patient?
Is it your intent to control symptoms or release the patient’s inborn healing ability? Is your intent to treat a condition or care for a patient? Is it your intent to manipulate a spine or adjust a subluxation? Is it your intent to move bones or restore a nervous system? Is it your intent to take credit or give credit?
Important questions. Your answers might suggest what you should be wearing while doing what you think you’re doing. Perhaps even more important, how would your patients answer these questions?
Some contend that a male chiropractor who wears anything less than a white shirt and tie, covered by a white lab coat is, well, unprofessional. Help me understand.
Let’s see, separate and distinct chiropractic colleges. Separate and distinct doctoral degree. Separate and distinct board examinations for licensure. Separate and distinct scope of practice and we’re supposed to look to another profession or industry for a dress standard? Phooey!
No, unprofessional is accepting responsibility for the patient’s recovery. Unprofessional is having such little respect for the patient that you treat them like children who have to be managed. Unprofessional is refusing to appropriately refer to another chiropractor or health professional. Unprofessional is referring to patients as “yours” and to the office team as your “girls.” Unprofessional is a way of acting, not necessarily a reflection of what you wear.
Or maybe it’s even simpler. Maybe wearing a white lab coat is simply respecting the germ-phobia of patients. After all, we all know that germs have an aversion to white fabric!
So…if you’d like to shed your white lab coat, you can choose either to go cold turkey or to ease into it. Just as the corporate world has instituted casual Fridays, you can too. After patients get used to that, go to casual Tuesdays and so on.
Now, about those latex gloves…
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Connecting the Dots
Published in 2005
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