Viewpoint: Wearing clothes that favor function

March 1, 2010

These days, we in the medical profession are devoting considerable attention to fashion.

"What kind of men dress like that?" I asked my dinner companion.

"Probably they are art students," she replied.

What gives me, a humble ophthalmologist, the right to opine on the clothing of others? These days, we in the medical profession are devoting considerable attention to fashion. Some physicians believe, with a dollop of supportive data, that ties and white coats become contaminated with dangerous organisms, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus.

At New York Hospital Medical Center, neckties worn by physicians were found to be contaminated with serious pathogens.1 Physicians at Brighton and Sussex Hospitals in England have been told not to wear ties.2 The British Medical Association has issued an opinion that "functionless" clothing items, such as ties, should be abandoned by physicians, because of contamination with "superbugs."

But other studies and physicians strongly defend the tie.3 At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, cultures of samples taken from white coats and ties "did not reveal anything significant."

Michael Bell, MD, associate director for infection control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said, "I don't think removing pieces of clothing is the answer." Robert Thompson, MD, in Seattle, has said that when physicians wear ties they are showing respect for patients, and that ties are being criticized by "doctors who don't like to wear ties." The AMA has appointed a committee to research the issue.

Are ties endangering the public health (as argued by our colleagues in Britain) or is it simply that young physicians (those disrespectful whippersnappers) prefer to dress down? When it comes to doctors and clothes, is it the case that less is more?

Are male physicians with large collections of elegant ties, accumulated over many Father's Days, simply traditionalists who are unwilling to adopt the latest fashion standards (like skinny jeans and capri pants)? There is a definite appeal to the concept, propounded by our brother and sister physicians in the United Kingdom, of outlawing "unnecessary and functionless" clothing. But who can be trusted to make the call of whether a particular item of clothing is functional or functionless?

This is the sort of power that should be wielded by department chairpersons. Most have at least one hour per day not spent in some committee meeting or other, and having them spend their free time on fashion concerns will prevent their interfering with their faculty members' work.

References

1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3745235.stm

2. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/doctors-told-not-to-wear-ties-to-stop-spread-of-mrsa-bug-428866.html

3. Smith R. Nothing to sneeze at: Doctors' neckties seen as flu risk. Hospitals propose bans, but old-schoolers resist loosening up; a germ-free design. Wall Street Journal. Nov 20, 2009.

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building 600 N. Wolfe St. Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu