The White Coat effect

Last year, while I was doing my clinical rotations, I got used to being able, essentially, to go anywhere and do anything in the hospitals. This included using physician computers, accessing restricted areas, boarding staff elevators, and feeling free to ask staff members for the door codes to physician workrooms and lounges. Security guards cheerfully waved me through metal detectors with a “C’mon in, Doc!” despite the fact that my pockets were bulging with metal equipment, and nurses held the doors to medical supply closets open for me. And this is with my short med student white coat– few lay people seem to know the difference between the short white coat that medical students wear and the long white coats that the MDs wear.

I’m taking a year off to do research this year. I’m about 2 months in now. Among other things, doing a research year means that I’m spending a great deal of time hanging around the medical campus without my traditional medical student get-up on. More specifically, it means I’m leaving my white coat at home most of the time. And I’ve noticed the difference. I look young for my age, and I often get mistaken for being college-age, or even, on occasion, high school-age. The white coat seems to give me an air of importance/authority that I otherwise don’t seem to have. It could be that I just feel a little more self-conscious without it, but I swear that I’ve been getting just a few more questioning glances and “Can I help you?”s and just a few fewer welcoming smiles and “Have a nice day!”s. It’s odd how one little piece of clothing can make all the difference in how people look at you.