Posted October 02, 2013

Provider Dress Code and its Impact on Patient Experience

By Dan Smith, M.D., FACEP

Physician attire and appearance is an area that many organizations discuss and, in some cases, struggle to define. Several factors come into play such as, variations in appearance, generational differences, business casual as commonplace, organizational branding without being overbearing on individuality and so on.

Although more commonly deployed for staff and non-physician positions, dress and attire standards are not a new concept. We find that many organizations have moved to uniform color codes for ease of identification of certain staff positions and have adapted stricter guidelines around dress code, including covering of tattoos.

The literature also suggests that this topic is being addressed across the industry. The common theme is professionalism. One Emergency Medicine study found that formal attire vs. scrubs was not associated with a significant difference in patient satisfaction or perception of professionalism. Another study published in an Archives Internal Medicine article suggests that certain physician appearances conjured "negative" perception.

Patients look for physician appearance to be one that garners trust and assuredness. As an example, a surgeon who meets a patient at surgical clinic with clean, ironed, hospital-issue scrubs is perceived as professional and dress-appropriate. Why? Because a patient associates a surgeon in their professional work attire, which often times include scrubs. On the other hand, a surgeon in fashion-distressed jeans and an open collar shirt with psychedelic design might be perceived as too casual to an anxious patient who faces a major surgery.

Let's say that a provider says, "I don't care about the patient's preference of my appearance or attire". But what if the doctor knew that their appearance and attire might alter a patient's perception, particularly in a negative way? What if we were aligned and committed enough to an organization that we put our individual preferences on hold during the care hours? What if the patient's anxiety reduced when they saw a professional-appearing physician who exuded confidence? What if uniform dress reflected "team", "collaboration" and reduction of variance? That is the essence of dress code.

My thoughts and coaching on this as a practicing physician are as follows:

  1. Patients are the focus of what we do in healthcare. I am more than willing to be professionally dressed if it helps my patient have a better experience under my care.
  2. We are professionals in a high stakes, high impact arena. Patient opinion and perception of professionalism should guide our approach.

I would say, though, that we don't want a "cookie-cutter" mandate, like male physician hair parted from the left to the right, hair 1 cm above ear and Johnston-Murphy loafers only! My feeling is what we do in healthcare holds us to a higher standard. The precise dress code and attire your practice embraces is a decision that each group must make and embrace. I hope this content helps you make an informed decision.

Physician engagement and buy-in is an important step to ensuring everyone is on board with changes in policy, such as new physician attire and appearance. Several resources that can assist include:

Attendees at Studer Conferences who attend the Physician Partnership Track gain the tools, tactics, behaviors, and best practices that are proven to increase physician satisfaction, improve patient compliance and gain market share through a collaborative partnership with physicians. Visit www.studergroup.com/conferences to learn more. 


  • The Journal of Emergency Medicine, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp.1-3, 2005
  • Gjerdingen, Simpson, Titus, Patients’ and Physicians Attitudes Regarding the Physician’s Professional Appearance. Arch Intern Med. 1987; 147(7): 1209-1212.

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