Will doctors' white coats get the hook?

A doctor cares for a patient at a hospital in Panorama City, Calif.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Imagine if your chosen profession was the subject of heated, sometimes really heated, arguments across the country. That people were debating how much you should get paid. Whether some of the tests you run are really necessary. And whether those white coats you wear are just so much window dressing and ought to be done away with. Jill Barshay reports on the latest problem for doctors.


JILL BARSHAY: Peter Ragusa is a fourth year medical student. It was obvious to him that his sleeves were rubbing against sick patients and spreading germs. But when Ragusa proposed getting rid of the traditional white doctor's coat, he was laughed out of the annual meeting of the American Medical Association.

PETER Ragusa: Unfortunately, it was somewhat dismissive. You know, what will physicians be wearing in the future, will they be scantily clad? Etcetera.

Ragusa's proposal wasn't so racy. He called for short sleeves, and no ties or jewelry. But it touched a nerve.

Stephen Greenberg is a medical historian at the National Institutes of Health. He says doctors have clung to their white coats since the 1880s to be taken seriously as scientific professionals instead of quacks.

STEPHEN Greenberg: It's as much sociology as medicine. I'm the doctor. I have status. I have the uniform. That makes me official.

The irony is that the status of the white coat has already slipped, ever since nurses began wearing them. The more senior the nurse, the longer the coat -- just like a doctor's.

Greenberg: But now everybody wears a white coat in a hospital. The cafeteria people, the librarians, the intake clerks. Everyone wears a white coat. So the idea of 'Hi, I wear a white coat, I'm the doctor,' has kind of gone away.

Still, doctors are a sentimental bunch. White coat ceremonies are a rite of passage at medical schools. Just ask Arlene Miller, the owner of Ja Mil Uniform Company in New York. She's been selling white coats for 47 years.

Arlene Miller: If it's someone that never had a lab coat before, it's like a wedding dress. They try on everything they can. What else you got? You know.

The uniform industry is attached to white coats too. Five months ago, Landau, one of the largest manufacturers, started selling coats -- with long sleeves -- made of a new material that resists germs.

But Peter Ragusa may still get the last laugh. The American Medical Association is studying his proposal.

In New York, I'm Jill Barshay for Marketplace.

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