Study shows clients care what veterinarians wear
A maiden study pinpoints wardrobe styles pet owners prefer from their veterinarian, uncovering links between attire and the levels of trust, confidence, and comfort clients associate with the doctor.
Studies in human medicine have demonstrated that first impressions pave the way for the doctor-patient relationship, and that a physician’s clothing is a component of these important first impressions.1-3 Specifically, physician attire has been found to affect patients’ trust, confidence, and comfort with their doctors. The research overwhelmingly connects the white laboratory coat with the parameters of trust and confidence.1-3
While patients’ perceptions of physician (and psychiatrist, specifically), nurse, and dentist wardrobe have been well studied, research focusing on clients’ attitudes toward veterinarians’ attire is only in its infancy.4,5
In a cross-sectional study6 investigating companion animal owners’ perceptions of, and preferences for, different types of veterinary attire, 449 pet owners were asked for their reactions to photographs depicting eight types of attire for male and female (model) veterinarians:
- Formal attire (white dress shirt/black skirt [female], white dress shirt/black pants/necktie [male])
- White dress shirt/black pants
- White casual shirt/khaki pants
- White casual shirt/jeans
- Surgical scrubs
- Surgical scrub top/khaki pants
- Surgical scrub top/jeans
- White laboratory coat/khaki pants
A single facial expression was used for each model veterinarian. Each participant received one of two randomly assigned online surveys associated with either the male or the female veterinarian. They were asked to assess the veterinarian's attire in the context of routine veterinary visits.
In the first part of the questionnaire, the eight photos were displayed randomly and participants were asked, anonymously, to rate their trust, confidence, and comfort in the model veterinarian being shown based on a 7-point scale anchored at “1” (low trust, confidence, and comfort) and “7” (high trust, confidence, and comfort).
Next, participants were shown all eight photos as a set and directed to rank them according to personal preference for each style of dress. Subjects were also asked to respond to statements regarding the overall importance of veterinary attire, their preference for name tags for veterinarians, and their ratings for specific items of appearance/attire (visible tattoos, running shoes, sleeveless tops, ear and facial piercings (male/female), long hair worn down, facial hair (male), necktie (male), and skirt (female).
The last part of the survey requested demographic data (respondent gender, age, education level, annual household income) and inquired about the respondent’s pet and veterinarian (i.e., number of years affiliated with current veterinarian, frequency of veterinary visits, type of attire worn by their veterinarian).
The study, performed by researchers at the University of Guelph in 2015 and published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, recruited adult participants in person at various dog parks in southern Ontario as well as via snowball sampling methods through social media.
Statistical analyses of the data controlled for independent variables such as gender of participant and of randomly assigned model, participant demographics and recruitment method, and gender/usual attire of participant’s regular veterinarian.
Most (71%) of the study participants — who were overwhelmingly female and college-plus educated, and take their pet to the veterinarian a mean of 2.4 times a year — expressed that a veterinarian’s attire is important. When asked to rank their preference among the eight wardrobe styles, their top choice for male and female veterinarians was surgical scrubs. Least preferred was formal attire.
For trust, confidence, and comfort scores, surgical scrubs garnered the highest ratings. For trust and confidence, high scores were also given to model veterinarians clad in a white laboratory coat and khakis. Trust and confidence were lowest for model veterinarians wearing casual shirt and jeans; comfort scores were lowest for model veterinarians dressed in formal attire.
Along with attire, the gender of the model veterinarian and the education level of the participant also impacted trust in and comfort with the model veterinarian.
Among individual items of attire, running shoes were most frequently (64%) rated as appropriate, while sleeveless tops were most often (58%) rated as inappropriate. Well over half of the participants (66%) conveyed the belief that veterinarians should wear a name tag while interacting with clients and their pets.
What it all means
While this study demonstrates that a veterinarian’s work garb functions as an unspoken message to pet owners, there is variation in clients’ views on clothing selection. Studies in human medicine revealed that preferences in physician attire vary with severity of illness, time of day,7 situation, and environment.8
General practice guidelines for staff attire, the authors concluded, could enable veterinarians to better meet pet owners’ expectations and enhance the doctor-client relationship. Based on high demand expressed in this study, hospital managers might consider including staff name tags in their attire protocol.
Dr. Capuzzi is a small animal veterinarian and journalist based in the Philadelphia area.
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6. Coe JB, O'Connor R, Pizzolon CN, et al. Investigation of the effects of veterinarians' attire on ratings of trust, confidence, and comfort in a sample of pet owners in Canada. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2020;256(11):1268‐1276.
7. Nibhanipudi KV, Mason B, Pandey A, et al. A study regarding Spanish-speaking parents’ preference of physician attire in the pediatric emergency room. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 2013;52:593-598.
8. Li SF, Haber M. Patient attitudes toward emergency physician attire. J Emerg Med. 2005;29:1-3.