For William of Wykeham, the 14th Century Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England, the proverb ‘Manners Maketh Man’ became his motto. Later, in the early 15th Century, another proverb developed to the effect of ‘Clothes make the man’. Moving forward to the 20th Century, the English novelist, Angela Carter, writing in Nothing Sacred (1982), said ‘Clothes are our weapons, our challenges, our visible insults’.
What then, would any of the subscribers to these historic notions make of the appearance of many of our professional men and women in the 21st Century? In particular, what does the dress of today’s doctors say about them and their attitudes to life, medicine and their patients?
Here, I must declare not only an interest, but a strong prejudice which, to those who know me, hopefully speaks for itself. Archaic notion though it may be, I subscribe to the idea that appearances matter. The 18th Century provides us with another proverb to illustrate the case: ‘First impressions are the most lasting’, the saying goes.
As a younger person, a doctor for me (and I speak of male doctors in the main here), was somebody who at the very least wore a jacket and tie. Suits were once de rigeuer for daytime wear for hospital consultants and Harley Street GPs; with tweed suits and jackets the domain of particularly the rural GP. Evenings and weekends on call required, at the very least, that other scarce item in today’s young man’s wardrobe, a sports jacket.
However, my view is rapidly becoming an anachronistic one. Hospital doctors have witnessed their crisp white coats resigned to the recycling bin, as uninformed policies have blamed long sleeves for hospital-acquired infections, and ‘bare below the elbows’ has been become the enforced rule. Ties now dare not show their face in the hospital clinical setting, as though these and cuffed shirts were the enemy rather than the failure by administrators to ensure that their hospitals were regularly cleaned, and staff remembered the simple expedient of washing their hands between patients.
So, how do you see your GP? Does it matter to you that he or she is in faded jeans, a slogan-bearing tea-shirt and training shoes; with straggling hair and, for the men at least, a couple of days growth on their chins? With allowances made for cultural differences (though the fact that such consideration should change our perception is witness to our fickleness), does it matter that your male doctor has a studded nose and ears, your doctor of either sex sports a lip ring, or medics of either sexes are happy to bare their strange and often indecipherable tattoos?
Laying my cards on the table, I think that it does matter. Standards of dress are slipping and, in my view, with that landslide of slippage goes a major chunk of professionalism. Doctors need to inspire confidence; wining the patient across at the very start is a major step towards assisting them with their complaint. The way a doctor dresses says a lot about their standards, attitudes and, in turn, how thy might apply those same principles to the care of their patient.
The early 20th Century proverb states that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’. However, next time you are confronted by a scruffy looking doctor, you might wish to remind them that style does matter, and patients shouldn’t be made to feel insulted by the appearance of their physician. After all, if book covers really don’t matter, would publishing houses spend so much time, effort and money making them look so good?
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday 26th July 2012)