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Dressing to inspire confidence: How the clothes you wear can change perceptions

There are a lot of things that I’ve forgotten since 1984, the year I started medical school. But I will never forget the Dean of Students’ proclamation on the very first day of class: “You must dress to inspire confidence,” he thundered. But that wasn’t the last of it. Over and over, our dapper dean schooled us on the importance of professionalism. Whether he said it overtly or not, we understood that the way we presented ourselves would go a long way towards allaying our patients’ fears and earning their trust.

Until the pandemic hit, I took his words to heart. Unless it was a procedure day in the hospital or the middle of the night on call, in which case scrubs were de rigueur, I chose my outfits carefully the night before, always aware of how my appearance might impact my patients and staff.

To be honest, as a small woman in the male-dominated specialty of cardiology, I think my choice of clothing was an important signifier, and something that helped me to create an atmosphere of respect. Dressing to inspire confidence became part of my professional DNA. Of course, it wasn’t the only thing that mattered. But I believe that it helped me deflect much of the misogyny that is often directed towards women in my field.

My intuition, and my dean’s emphatic counsel, is supported by the science of “enclothed cognition,” which looks at the way the clothes we wear can impact our psychology.

I retired in early 2022, at which time scrubs were still very much the norm given the ongoing pandemic. But since then, the world has moved on, and we are fortunately back to a semblance of normal.

Of course, “normal” is all very nebulous when we are talking about the state of health care. Given the massive shifts in our world, including corporate takeovers of medical practices, escalating disrespect from patients and families, and unprecedented levels of burnout, the “new normal” trope is a fitting moniker for these times.

But now that we have emerged on the other side, it is time to reconsider the clothes that we wear and the way that we present ourselves as physicians. For some people, this has created enormous discomfort. “I cannot devote brain cells to choosing a new outfit every morning,” says one physician. “I think scrubs look professional enough,” says another. And “I have no time for real clothes,” says a third.

That may feel very reasonable. But since we are physicians, this is a good time to look at the data and see where that leads us.

In fact, there have been some very interesting studies on this very topic. One, from the Irish Journal of Medical Science, reported that over 75 percent of hospital physicians at one hospital switched to scrubs due to the pandemic. Most of those physicians did not want to return to a pre-pandemic code of professional attire.

Patients preferred scrubs during the pandemic as well. Yet pre-pandemic, patients rated formal attire with a white coat most highly, although scrubs were preferred for surgeons.

Fair or not, women physicians are still held to a different standard than their male colleagues. A 2021 study of patient perceptions of physicians’ attire found that patients rated family physicians dressed professionally and wearing a white coat as being more experienced and more professional than those in scrubs and without a white coat. Although both genders were judged by the clothes they wore, female physicians were consistently less likely to be identified as a physician, even when professionally attired. And those women wearing scrubs were more likely to be identified as a nurse, medical technician, or PA than as a physician or surgeon.

So how can you dress professionally without overthinking, overspending, and overstepping your personal boundaries? Here are a few easy ways to get started.

Black pants with different shirts. Regardless of gender, simply pair classic black trousers (or a skirt) with various shirts, including button-downs, blouses, or tailored tops.

Capsule wardrobe. This is a simplified and efficient method that can expand your options yet keep your choices easily interchangeable. A capsule wardrobe consists of a limited number of versatile pieces in neutrals and colors that can be mixed and matched easily.

Uniform à la Steve Jobs. Choose your signature style and stick to it. Adopting a uniform look, like Steve Jobs’ iconic black turtleneck and jeans, can create a distinctive and memorable professional identity. While Jobs could wear whatever he liked, as a physician, it’s best to replace the jeans with something more professional.

Comfortable yet professional shoes. Although I love a great pair of heels, comfortable feet are essential for long hours. Choose shoes that offer support and comfort without compromising on style. Loafers, low heels, or professional flats with support are all good options.

Dresses with pockets. Dresses don’t have to be fussy. Like pants, they can be functional and stylish. Dresses with pockets offer convenience for carrying small essentials. Opt for A-line dresses in solid colors or subtle patterns for a professional appearance.

Leggings under a dress. Wearing leggings under a dress combines the professionalism of a dress with the comfort of leggings, suitable for long hours. And this choice can take you straight from work to the yoga studio or walking trail.

Work with a stylist. Consulting a stylist can help you develop a personalized wardrobe that suits your unique style, body type, and professional requirements. Many department stores and boutiques offer this option free of charge.

While your medical knowledge and clinical skills are your most important attributes, the way you present yourself is powerful. Far from simply superficial aesthetics, physicians who prioritize professional attire convey their commitment to their patients’ well-being, while also projecting confidence, leadership, and respect for the medical tradition. By dressing to inspire confidence, you may enhance the doctor-patient relationship, foster trust and respect, and contribute to a more positive and effective health care experience.

Sarah Samaan is a retired cardiologist.

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