A recent article in the Boston Globe (Doctors debate safety of their white coats) talked about how doctors had realised that their traditional white coats were ‘germ magnets,’ and how they were now discarding them in favour of less formal attire.
Setting aside the rather obvious question of why a dirty white lab coat would be any more rancid than a dirty shirt – a point also sidestepped in the article – the Globe went on to suggest that the good natured debate that had ensued ‘touched on shifting perceptions of the physician’s role.’
On the one hand, the white lab coat is a symbol of trust. There are studies that show powerful placebo effects of people wearing white lab coats (see Benedetti, 2013), but white lab coats can also symbolise the profession’s elite social status and their professionally sanctioned power over the patient. (Do a Google Image search of white lab coats and see how many images are of white, male doctors ‘doing things’ to patients)
Much like the white lab coat, the white clinic room is as much about perception as actuality. Granted, a white clinic room shows up dirt and grime much better, but a dirty clinic room won’t be any cleaner, per se, than a dirty brown clinic room. It just looks more clinical, and this is an image we often want to (subconsciously) convey to our patients.
“After all, perception is everything.”
Studying the everyday objects that physiotherapists and others use to silently convey messages to the patient is a fascinating field of research and can reveal some interesting things about the profession. In a paper written in 2009, for instance, we looked at why physiotherapy treatment beds needed to be so ‘mechanical’ (Nicholls, Walton & Price, 2009).
As physios struggle to come to terms with the new economy of healthcare, greater client/patient choice, and people’s desire for more embodied and holistic therapeutic experiences, we are starting to see clinicians designing their clinic spaces differently. People are using more colour, hiding the medical equipment away, and visibly discouraging the over-medicalisation of their therapeutic spaces.
Often they are making these changes without realising what they are saying about the broader profession, which is why researchers can help to expose some of these discourses. After all, perception is everything.
Benedetti, F. (2013). Placebo and the new physiology of the doctor-patient relationship. Physiological Reviews, 93(3), 1207. doi:10.1152/physrev.00043.2012.
Nicholls, D. A., Walton, J. A., & Price, K. (2009). Making breathing your business: Enterprising practices at the margins of orthodoxy. Health: An Interdisciplinary for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, 13(3), 337-360.