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When I was a child, I loved picture-books of knights in armour. The adventures and dragons were part of the appeal, but I was also fascinated by the coats of arms, with their bright colours and mysterious symbolism. When you grow up you have to give up on dragons, and on at least certain kinds of adventure, but it’s been an unexpected pleasure to find that, working in a hospital, you get to keep the heraldry.
Stand in the main corridor of your hospital one day, maybe around lunchtime, and watch the people going past. Take a moment just to appreciate the colours. That rich purple signifies an A&E consultant. The emerald-green trim means an occupational therapist. The bright yellow shirt must belong to a porter. Taken together, we’re a rainbow, an aviary of tropical birds.
The cut of the uniform is also significant. Physios may be in polo-shirts, reflecting their sporty, outdoor backgrounds. Female nurses, even if no longer actually in dresses, often wear tunics that echo the same shape – while male ones, inexplicably, usually seem to get epaulettes. Is the idea to suggest orderlies in an army, in case male nurses should feel emasculated by their caring role? Scrubs, of course, are all-purpose, a great equaliser in their pyjama-like simplicity.
Then there’s the masonic symbolism of accessories. A stethoscope, of course, means a doctor – nurses and physios may use them, but you’ll seldom see them sporting one outside the ward. A theatre gown worn backwards is invariably an anaesthetist. The upside-down watch can only be a nurse. (Actually, upside-down watches are eminently practical for all kinds of health professionals. Why don’t we all wear one? Surely it can’t be anything so petty as wanting to avoid being mistaken for nurses?)
That many doctors don’t work in uniform sets them apart from most of the allied professions. Dress conventions, though unofficial, are still clear-cut, though: technically, bow ties are acceptable, but while they’re fairly common-place among consultants, a foundation doctor wearing one will get some funny looks. And anyone who’s spent much time in a hospital can distinguish at a glance between a medical consultant’s suit and a management consultant’s, even if, like me, they’d be hard-pressed to say exactly what the difference was.
Comfortable, practical uniforms are obviously a good idea, but the look of the thing is also important. How we dress helps determine both how people respond to us, and how we feel about our own role. For the knight riding into battle, brightly-coloured heraldic symbols had plenty of practical purposes, from recognising who to shoot at to rallying the troops around you, but I bet they cheered them up as well.
By the Secret Doctor
Read the blog and follow @TheSecretDr on Twitter and on Facebook
This could be one of the most pompous comments I’ve ever read- absolutely ridiculous.
Oh dear Anonymous - who kicked your gurney?! I thought this was a lovely, lighthearted article, well done @TheSecretDr !
My IQ dropped by reading the above. The white coat is the doctors' proper attire, not expensive clothing that makes us look like bankers, solicitors and politicians.
I often think that the only people these uniforms make sense to are hospital staff. I often wonder how baffling all the colours etc you mention must be to a ward patient. I've lost count of the number of times a ward patient has told me a health professional came to seem them earlier that day, when I ask "who?" they give me a blank stare and tell me they have no idea. No idea of the name, profession, nudda! Surely the NHS could come up with a nationalised uniform policy so every colour means the same thing in every hospital? Much better for patients
Was this written by a 10 year old? 'Upside down watch'. It's a fob watch!
fascinating! There is, as this article points out, an unwritten but widely accepted dress code for Drs - and it varies depending on your specialism and rank (I recall needing totally bodily fluid proof outfits that could withstand constant hot washes as an FY whereas now I wear smart jackets as I dont run so much and almost never causes fluid leakage :) fun and clever - why the mean comments below??!
Not sure why the mean comments below... Must be either the international lot or the stiff upper lip /old school generation...... Who don't mind scaring patients with the white coat.... *chuckle chuckle*..... Although I do miss the simplicity of the white coat.... At least you were protected from crap and had pockets.... But was pretty restrictive for movement and fast 100metre runs towards crash calls......
Well, this sounds a voice from a generation back. Today a typical doctor is in a shirt and trousers, without any tie, without a suit, and with the sleeves of the shirt folded. If it is cold, he can wear a sleeve-less sweater. The most down to earth, the humblest of any uniform if you wish to call it a uniform. And the managers are distinguishable by their dress which includes a colourful tie, a well fitting suit and an expensive wrist watch.
So doctors don't wear dresses, or skirts?
Brave are the souls that wear dresses and skirts whose knees risk abrasions from kneeling St a patient's beside in procedures or falling over if running on a crash call, or whose legs may well have splashes of all sorts on them, or who may risk unmentionables being seen on bending over for whatever reason when examining patients, or who can live without pockets or little handbags (that get heavily filled with all sorts)....
Depends on what type of person you are. And whether skirts and dresses are your thing and if they work for you.
In the end as another anonymous pointed out.... Our clothing these days are humble if not practical.
Dare I say it, some if us can't afford to expensive clothing or to have that be soiled with blood and other bodily fluids.
As a psychiatrist it has always amazed me how the ward staff have always instantly recognised me as such whenever I walk onto any kind of medical or surgical ward. I don't think I have a uniform - is it the inevitable odd socks that give me away?
In Norway all hospital staff wear white trousers & white tabard with epaulettes in distinct colours for each position each member of staff has. 3 uniforms in their locker & any stain requires immediate change laundry is done by the hospital & no uniform is worn outside the hospitalIt is extremely smart & practical & charts are available in the corridors
I like observing unspoken dress codes too - different specialities dress subtly different even from early in their career paths. I sometimes play a game with myself of guess the speciality as a doctor from another team walks onto the ward. I would like to suggest, as a gross generalisation, that dermatologists amongst the medics and plastic surgeons amongst the surgeons are the best dressed...(I am neither)
The comment about consultant suits highlights how many blatantly and arrogantly disregard policy such as bare below the elbow
"Bare below the elbow" being a non-evidence-based policy.
An Infection Control Doctor.