In today's VETgirl online veterinary CE blog, we discuss the veterinarian’s attire in the emergency hospital and how our clients perceive what we wear. As we all know, first impressions are powerful. And in the emergency setting, one of our more challenging goals is to gain the trust of the client (as we've never seen them before!). How we stand in the room, the tone of our voice, our eye contact, and how we look to the client are all tools that can be just as powerful as the medical information in our heads when it comes to connecting with our client. So do you like to don a white coat and business casual clothes for your ER shift? Or perhaps, you’re like me, and enjoy not having to think beyond putting on a pair of scrubs before each shift? So, McGiffon et al wanted to evaluate this in a study called "Clients’ attitudes toward veterinarians’ attire in the small animal emergency medicine setting."
Clients that entered the emergency department at the Inland Valley Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Center were invited to participate in this survey. The distributed survey was a modified version of a survey used in similar studies of human medical doctor attire. The pet owner was provided with a questionnaire regarding his or her preferences of doctor age, sex, and attire, and then asked how comfortable they are with disclosing personal information with veterinarians dressed in one of 5 outfits. A laminated picture was provided to explain the 5 styles of attire studied. The “professional” look included business clothes covered by a white coat. The “business” look included a shirt and tie for men, and slacks for both men and women. The “surgical” look described men and women wearing scrubs, and the “clinic” look was men and women wearing scrubs covered by a white coat. And finally the “smart casual” look was a typical business casual look, which may or may not include jeans, and/or a polo shirt. Clients were also asked about their comfort level with their doctor displaying piercings, tattoos, and colored hair.
Thankfully for me, who likes to throw on a pair of scrubs each shift, most clients (74% of the 160 total clients) in this study said that the veterinarian’s attire didn’t impact their comfort level or trust in their medical knowledge and perceived quality of care for their pet. But for those who did have a preference in attire, most preferred their veterinarian in a pair of scrubs with or without a white coat. In regards to some of our extra bits of flare, only 26% of clients were uncomfortable with facial piercings, 14.3% were uncomfortable with “excessive” ear piercings, 20.1% were uncomfortable with visible tattoos, and 14.3% with colored hair. The authors were a bit shocked that client’s didn’t show a preference for veterinarians to wear white coats as some human studies have shown, but they also comment that when looking at just the ER studies in human medicine, clients in those studies didn’t really show a preference in their doctor’s attire, much like what they found in this veterinary study.
On the human side, the ER doctor’s white coat is being seen as a potential fomite for transmission of disease between patients. I know in the ER setting, I’ve had my fair share of blood and fluids coloring my white coat during a shift. Some of us keep multiple white coats in our office for this reason, or chose to remove our white coats before handling patients so it is more of a protective covering when talking to clients rather than an essential article of clothing. The authors suggest that perhaps clients in this study didn’t have a preference regarding the white coat due to the stress of their emergent situation muddling their responses. Or perhaps this study only represents one regional preference as this study only looked into one hospital and the clientele it services (It was, after all, done in California.). There is also a possibility that clients answering this survey didn’t want to express their bias, which may have brought on judgment from hospital staff during their emergency visit. The authors acknowledge that they used veterinarians from this hospital to model the 5 styles of attire, and this could also add bias into the study for clients that had these veterinarians overseeing their pet’s case.
Overall, this is an interesting study exploring the superficial layers of client’s perceptions of the veterinarian’s appearance. It would be interesting to delve deeper into whether gender influences the clients’ trust in their veterinarians, and to explore the reasons behind why there may be an attire preference for veterinarians and human doctors in other fields of study outside of ER. What do we take away from this VETgirl podcast? Apparently, VETgirl can keep on keepin' on in her scrubs. The take-home from this study is that if you’re a small animal ER vet, jump into those snuggly scrubs, put a white coat on only if you prefer it, and don’t worry too much about what your client’s think of your piercings and hair preferences. Now go save some lives.
McGiffon TS, Hybki GC, Castro J, et al. Clients’ attitudes toward veterinarians’ attire in the small animal emergency medicine setting. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2018;253(3):355-359.