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White Lab Coats: Protection That Conveys Prestige

Quick! Think of your favorite science fiction movie. What are the mad scientist and his assistant wearing while they experiment on his frightening creature? If you said "white lab coats, " go to the head of the class!


They'll probably be decked out in the traditional cap and gown when they graduate, but more and more medical students are being "cloaked" in white lab coats when they start medical school.

The practice of dressing new medical students in white lab coats was begun in'93 by Columbia University School of Physicians and Surgeons. University and medical school officials have said that the ritual of helping a student don his or her own white lab coat represents public service and professionalism.

Today white lab coats are still used for protection, but after more than a century of use they've also become a symbol of authority and power when worn by doctors, nurses, technicians and other scientists. Wearing white lab coats came about the in the mid-1800's when scientific practices and cures were replacing hit-or-miss remedies. The power to heal became associated with someone in a white coat.

The symbolism of white lab coats reconnects today's medical professions with the historic reasons that the attire was originally adopted in the'80's.

By the mid-19th century, many significant scientific advances had been in medical care, such as Louis Pasteur's development of smallpox vaccine and Joseph Lister's theories on germs as the cause of disease. Doctors began wearing knee-length white coats as a way to protect themselves from blood and other bodily emissions.

Even with advanced medical techniques, doctors are still treating the human body, one of the dirtiest organisms known on the planet. Blood and other kinds of bodily fluids can be present any time there's an injury to the body. A white lab coat still serves to protect a medical worker from contamination. That's why doctors change from their hospital scrubs and lab coats into street clothes before they leave. Medical uniforms are considered contaminated, even if nothing shows, by the germs of dozens of people. They're thoroughly washed and sterilized before being used again.

A British study several years ago found that patients liked their doctors to wear white lab coats; it gave them a sense of being treated by a professional. However, a more recent American study found that patients preferred it when their doctors wore street clothes. Respondents in the American study said they felt like their physicians were more approachable when not wearing the familiar lab coat.

Despite these findings, dressing doctors in white lab coats has taken on new meaning because of a growing number of "white coat ceremonies" for medical students. The ritual involves "robing" new medical students in a white lab coat as a symbol of service and professionalism. Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons began the practice in'93 and more than 100 U. S. Medical schools have adopted the ritual.


Article Tags: Medical Students

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