Why White Lab Coats?

Lab coats convey power and trust. While there are plenty of current examples of this, the classic icon of the wise and compassionate physician is represented by Marcus Welby, MD. Played by Emmy-winning actor Robert Young, the Marcus Welby character was familiar to millions of TV watchers who tuned in to the show each week during its 1969-76 run.

"I am not a doctor, but I play one on TV." Young's most famous line was uttered while wearing a white lab coat, but it was not in an episode of his show. It was for a commercial for aspirin

"Although this line has been parodied many times since, when the commercial originally ran it was an effective opening to a successful television ad," writes Terry R. Bacon The Elements of Power: Lessons on Leadership and Influence. "The question is: Why did it work? The answer is that Robert Young, in the guise of the wise and compassionate Dr. Welby, had developed great virtual history power with multiple millions of viewers. We felt we knew him. We felt we could trust him. If he (in his white lab coat) was confident in and endorsed this product, then it must be good medicine."

Though classical conditioning might prompt a child to scream and cry when someone in a white lab coat enters a room, the general response most people have to seeing traditional medical uniforms tends to be a sense of trust.

Why a white coat?

The simplest answer to this: white makes it easy to see that it's clean and allows it to be washed at very hot temperatures. And that's good for everyone involved -- patient and physician alike.

Lab coats protect healthcare workers from spills and other hazards. A white lab coat is typically worn over street clothes or medical scrubs. The purpose is both functional -- to protect the clothing -- as well as social -- to identify the wearer as a physician or other healthcare worker.

And this goes way back, as John Chynoweth Burnham writes in What Is Medical History: "Healing may have been private, but the identity of the healer was a social phenomenon. . . In the fifteenth century, the physician could wear a distinctive long robe, in the twentieth a white lab coat. In 1914, a British surgeon, Harry Platt, who had been visiting the United States, returned home and explicitly urged his colleagues to adopt the wearing of the white coat to claim status by reminding patients and the public that doctors represented science."

Cotton lab coats?

Lab coats are made of thin material, generally cotton or polyester, and are designed with or without pockets on the side. Many healthcare workers prefer 100 percent cotton lab coats to other materials and blends. They can be closed by buttons or snaps, though some professionals choose to wear them open.

Lab coats -- sometimes called lab jackets -- are worn by physicians and nurses, as well as by other healthcare workers such as pharmacists, dental assistants, ultrasound technicians, and beyond. Here are a few other details about lab coats:

  • White Coat Ceremonies have become the new rituals at medical schools around the United States as a way of marking the start of medical students' journeys.
  • White is not the only color. Medical lab coats are made in a variety of colors.
  • They can be personalized. Embroidered or monogrammed lab coats are popular.
  • Lab coats come in a wide range of sizes and styles. There are double breasted lab coats, lab coats for women, lab coats for men.

Beyond standard white lab coats

If you're looking to move beyond the standard-issue white lab coats, here are a few vendors to check out:
Medelita makes lab coats that feature high-quality performance fabrics, finishing details, functionality, and fit.
Lab Coats Unlimited offers embroidery and monogramming of lab coats and more.
DocFroc produces antibacterial lab coats and scrubs.

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