How you present yourself can impact how you are perceived by your patients – so it's important to look professional and dress for your role, writes Dr Kathryn Leask.

A recent study in the US surveyed 4000 patients about the importance of what doctors wear in the clinical setting. Half of those surveyed said that what doctors wore was important to them and one third said that it influenced how satisfied they were with the care provided.

While there are no specific rules about what a medical student or doctor should wear for work, it's important to consider your obligation to present yourself as being part of a profession in which patients and their carers can have confidence.

Dress to impress

Depending on what specialty you are working in, you could see a whole range of different patients – all of whom may have different expectations. Some won't have any particular views about their doctor's appearance providing the care is clinically appropriate and communication is good. Even a well-dressed doctor will receive complaints if either of these are lacking.

However, other patients will have expectations about how doctors present themselves and may be put off by one who doesn't come across as professional because of the clothes they are wearing. There's a risk that this could set the tone and undermine the consultation and, as a result, the patient's perception of the care they've received.

Older patients may remember when doctors wore white coats and have images of the consultant being followed around the daily ward round by their entourage of white-coated juniors. White coats are now a thing of the past due to infection risk, and many hospitals now ask that doctors' sleeves are above the elbow and neck ties are not worn – also to avoid infection risk. It's still important, however, to look professional.

Function over fashion

What you wear needs to be practical. Do you work in paediatrics and find that you are constantly kneeling or bending down to interact better with your patient? Do you spend your time in the emergency department, where you might come into contact with various body fluids that necessitate changing your clothes during a shift?

Different days of the week may have different demands. If you are going to spend all day on your feet doing ward rounds and ward work, you might want to think more carefully about your footwear than on the day you spend in clinic.

While fashions outside the workplace change, professional workplace attire generally has a common theme. It's smart, tidy and doesn't reveal parts of the body that should, under normal circumstances, be kept private. Remember that when examining patients you may need to get very close to them, lean over them or bend down. While professional dress might not be something you'd normally want to wear, it's worth investing in some smart and functional clothes that you specifically use for work. It might not be completely to your tastes, but you do need to consider how what you wear impacts your patients.

While some patients may be quite happy to see their doctors dressed casually or in the latest designer fashions, this might have a negative effect on the view other patients have of you. Vulnerable patients need to have faith and trust in their doctor, and first impressions are very important.

Vulnerable patients need to have faith and trust in their doctors, and first impressions are very important.

It probably goes without saying that very casual clothes like jeans, trainers and T-shirts don't give the impression of the competent professional. It's also important to consider any embellishments to your outfit. Jewellery can pose an infection risk, particularly rings with stones and wrist watches, and some hospitals may have policies about wearing these.

Large pieces of jewellery, or those with sharp edges, could also pose an injury risk if they catch the patient during an examination and certain types of adornment, such as visible piercings, may not go down well with patients or employers. Patients will also notice if your clothes aren't clean, and also your hands and fingernails, particularly if your interaction with them involves physical contact during an examination.

Impressions matter

Think about what you would wear to an important job interview or membership exam. In both instances it's important to create the best impression you can, and this should also be the case when you are seeing patients. This is equally important for medical students who are sitting exams where real and simulated patients are given the opportunity to offer feedback on their impression of the student, and where the examiner may be influenced by a student's general appearance and demeanour. If your appearance is criticised, either by your colleagues or by patients in their comments, reflect on this and consider how you might appear to others.

Put yourself in the patient's position, or that of their relatives. Would you want the person in front of you, based on their appearance, treating you or one of your nearest and dearest?

This page was correct at publication on 25/06/2018. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.