Why do doctors wear white coats?

The origin

In the middle of 19th century, discoveries of the microbiologist Louis Pasteur provide direct evidence for the germ theory of disease. The theory inspired a British surgeon Joseph Lister. He realized that it might be the dirty clothes and environment which caused his patients infected to death. Since then, Lister started to use phenol to sterilize the operation equipment and wear cleaned white coats during the surgery. This reform had decrease the mortality after surgery from 50% to 15%. However, Lister’s initiatives were not accept by other doctors at that time. The germ theory were not widely accepted yet until 1875, a Germany hospital used phenol and white coats to decrease the mortality after surgery to a very low level. White coats had officially become the symbol of medical doctors.

“The Gross Clinic” in 1875 and “The Agnew Clinic” in 1889 by Thomas Eakins.
In only 14 years the environment of clinic had changed a lot.
The black suits had come white coats. Via: Art painting artist

Why white coats?

Excepting the symbolic of white colour, there are more realistic reasons for choosing white coats. White coats are easy to get dirty by the blood and pus during the surgery. Germs are easy to be contained in these things. So white coats can help physicians to detect the potential source of infection quickly. Before white coats, physicians usually operate a series of surgeries with the same black suit which may hide a lots of germs. Many infectious after surgery were caused by that.

Not all doctors wear white coats

Pediatrician and psychiatrist usually don’t wear white coats. In 1996, a group of researchers from UK found that white coats can make patients feel anxiety and stressed. It can increase the blood pressure of children and psychological disordered patients. The symptom was named as white-coat hypertension. Pediatricians usually wear warm colour which can ease children’s mood. Some psychiatrists even don’t wear the suit to make the environment as relaxing as possible for patients. Especially there is usually no need to worry about infectious in the psychological treatment.

Some physicians also start to wear green or blue coats during the surgery. The main reason is negative afterimage. Negative afterimage will happen when physicians have stared at red blood during the surgery for too long. They will see the complementary colour of red which is green when they move their vision to the white coats. This fact may affect the operation sometimes. So by wearing the green coat, the green colour can be neutralized.

Complementary colour from Will Kemp art school

New debates on white coats

More and more researches found that the white coats start to become the source of germs nowadays. Although there is no causal association between cross infection and wearing white coats have been found yet. However, there are studies point out that the sleeve and pocket of white coats will nourish a large amount of germs. These germs might be the source of some infectious.

In 2008, doctors in UK started to quit wearing white coats in hospital. In 2009, the American Medical Association also start to debate about wear white suit or not.

White coats were designed to protect patients from germs 100+ years ago, and now they are questioned to be the source of germs. Findings, debates and arguments all contributed to the developments of science.


One Response to “Why do doctors wear white coats?”

  1. Arushi says:

    Never imagined the reason of white coats for docs could be related to the “germ theory”. Thanks for the read!