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What Do Doctors Wear? (Decoding Medical Dress Codes)

What Do Doctors Wear? (Decoding Medical Dress Codes)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Doctors around the world don a huge range of attire, depending on their country, culture, and workplace regulations.

Their clothing choices serve various purposes, from distinguishing themselves from other healthcare professionals to maintaining cleanliness to making a positive impression on patients.

Doctors in the UK will most often wear business casual attire when working. For men, this often constitutes a collared shirt and chinos, while for women this is generally a smart blouse and skirt. However, depending on the setting, doctors may wear a suit, scrubs or anything in between.

I’ve spent a number of years on hospital wards and in GP practices, first as a medical student and then as a doctor, so have seen doctors wear a whole range of outfits.

From doctors dressed up as Father Christmas on Christmas Eve to shorts and flip-flops on a ward round.

In this article, I’m going to further explain what doctors will most commonly be seen wearing in an NHS hospital, as well as some of the reasoning and policies behind these choices of dress.

Most Common Outfits UK Doctors Wear

One of the most iconic garments worn by doctors is the white coat. With a history dating back over a century, the white coat has become a symbol of a doctor’s professional identity.

However, the traditional doctor’s white coat was phased out from the NHS in 2007 due to infection control concerns.

Therefore, doctors in the UK will most often wear one of the three outfit choices below.

Business Casual

The vast majority of doctors opt for business casual attire when working in non-emergency settings.

What Male Doctors Wear

In many hospitals, there’s a bit of an unofficial uniform for male junior doctors.

This will generally be a smart shirt, most often blue, baby pink or white, paired with a pair of navy, grey or cream chinos.

A junior doctor wearing a shirt and chinos
A junior doctor wearing a shirt and chinos

The outfit is completed with a pair of smart black or brown shoes/boots and a belt.

While there aren’t any rules saying you have to dress like this, it is just a relatively comfy but professional outfit that fits the requirements of the job.

What Female Doctors Wear

Female doctors naturally have a bit more imagination than their male counterparts so will generally be seen wearing a wider range of outfits.

Female doctors will often wear a range of smart tops, blouses, skirts, dresses, trousers and jumpsuits. Comfortable and professional footwear, such as closed-toe shoes, are also essential for long shifts.

Again, there aren’t any strict rules on what a female can and can’t wear in a hospital, as long as the doctor has an outwardly professional appearance.

Scrubs

When not wearing a business casual outfit, scrubs are probably the second most common clothing that doctors will wear.

They’re a common choice for doctors working in emergency departments, surgical wards or in theatres and other sterile environments.

The outfit typically comprises a short-sleeved, V-neck shirt paired with drawstring trousers. Crocs or trainers may then also be worn.

Scrubs provide comfort, ease of movement, and easy identification as a medical professional.

If you’ve never worn a pair of scrubs, you won’t be able to appreciate that it is somewhat like getting to wear your pyjamas to work!

In some hospitals, different coloured scrubs are worn to help differentiate roles, such as junior doctors, consultants, and various nursing positions.

Suits

A doctor wearing a suit is not nearly as common as one in business casual or scrubs but is favoured by more old-school physicians and surgeons.

Suits may also be worn for more formal occasions such as when giving a presentation or attending a conference.

Suits can convey professionalism and authority for a doctor while maintaining a polished and clean appearance.

Dress Codes And Policies

Dress code specifics will often vary from hospital trust to hospital trust but there are some common themes that are observed throughout the NHS.

Bare Below The Elbow

The “bare below the elbow” policy is often implemented in healthcare settings to minimise the risk of healthcare-associated infections.

It entails that doctors, and other healthcare staff, should wear short-sleeved shirts and avoid wearing wristwatches, bracelets, or long sleeves that could come into contact with patients or surfaces.

This policy has been widely adopted and is seen as an essential aspect of maintaining cleanliness and hygiene in the clinical environment.

It’s why doctors’ white coats were phased out and why doctors will roll up the sleeves on any shirt or top that they’re wearing in a clinical environment.

Maintaining A Professional Appearance

Presenting a professional appearance to patients and staff is essentially the core of any hospital’s dress code.

What Doctors Wear Pixel Infographic

This often translates to no revealing tops, clothing with offensive text or images on, open-toed shoes or flip flops and just generally any overly casual items of clothing (e.g. shorts or jeans).

Maintaining a smart appearance is essential for doctors as it helps build trust with patients and ensures a professional work environment.

Jewellery Policies

Jewellery policies are an essential part of healthcare dress codes as they help minimise the risk of infections and ensure the professional appearance of doctors.

As a general rule, doctors should avoid wearing large or dangling jewellery pieces that could interfere with their work.

Small earrings and necklaces may be permitted, while body piercings should be discreet or covered.

In line with the “bare below the elbow” policy, wristwatches and bracelets should not be worn as they may harbour harmful bacteria and compromise cleanliness in the healthcare setting.

The one compromise to this is a plain wedding band that most hospitals will allow their staff to wear.

PPE That Doctors Wear

As well as their clothing choices, doctors will also wear a range of PPE to shield themselves and their patients from the transmission of harmful microorganisms during their work.

Gloves

Gloves serve as a barrier between the doctor and the patient. They are an essential part of PPE, whether working on a patient or dealing with infectious materials.

Gloves come in various materials, such as latex, nitrile, and vinyl, and different types of drugs can be used for different tasks in the healthcare environment.

Aprons And Masks

Aprons are used to protect doctors’ clothing from possible contamination or splashes.

They are commonly made of plastic or water-resistant materials, allowing for easy cleaning and disposal.

Meanwhile, masks prevent the inhalation of airborne infections and protect patients from potential contamination.

Medical masks differ in their filtration efficiencies, with the N95 or FFP2 standard being commonly used for protection against infectious particles.

Scrub Gowns And Scrub Caps

Scrub gowns and scrub caps form part of a doctor’s protective clothing in theatres.

These garments are made from materials designed to be clean and relatively resistant to contamination.

Two maxillofacial surgeons performing an operation
A group of surgeons wearing scrub gowns

Scrub gowns cover a doctor’s torso and arms, while scrub caps shield their hair and scalp.

These items also offer additional protection when dealing with potentially hazardous or infectious materials.

Goggles and Face Shields

To protect the eyes from potential splashes, aerosols or droplets, doctors can wear goggles or face shields.

Goggles offer a snug fit around the eyes, while face shields cover the entire face, providing additional protection for the nose and mouth.

Doctors may choose between these forms of eye protection based on the specific task or procedure and the potential risk involved- for example, particularly messy operations.

Doctors’ Accessories

Although there aren’t a lot of them, doctors will generally always carry a range of accessories needed to do their job.

Name Badges

Name badges are an essential accessory for doctors as they serve as a form of identification and help establish trust between healthcare professionals and patients.

Name badges often include the doctor’s name, their title or qualification, and the department they work in.

Wearing a name badge ensures that patients and colleagues can quickly and easily identify doctors, increasing overall communication and collaboration in the healthcare setting.

Stethoscopes

Stethoscopes are a fundamental tool for doctors and are worn around their necks or kept in a top or trouser pocket.

This essential device is used to listen to patients’ heartbeats, breathing, and other internal body sounds.

Wearing a stethoscope not only helps doctors perform their examinations but also serves as a bit of a visual cue, reinforcing their professional image to patients and colleagues.

Bleeps

Bleeps, also known as pagers, are another crucial accessory for doctors. Although they may appear outdated in the age of smartphones, bleeps remain an efficient and reliable method of communication in hospitals and other healthcare settings.

They allow doctors to receive urgent notifications and messages, ensuring prompt attention to patient needs or emergencies.

Due to their compact size and lightweight design, bleeps can easily be clipped onto clothing or attached to a lanyard and are accessible at a moment’s notice.

Cultural And Religious Considerations

In many religions and cultures, doctors may wear head coverings, such as hijabs, turbans, or yarmulkes, as part of their religious observance.

In these cases, doctors just have to ensure these head coverings are hygienic and compatible with the necessary infection control measures.

In certain situations, healthcare professionals may also have to adapt their attire to respect the cultural and religious sensitivities of the patient population they are serving.

For instance, wearing modest clothing or taking off shoes before entering a patient’s room may be necessary in some cultural contexts.

Medical Dress Codes FAQs

Do doctors have a uniform?

Doctors do not have a specific uniform, either when working for the NHS or otherwise. However, doctors will typically dress in a somewhat uniform manner, with collared shirts, trousers, dresses and skirts being most common, although how a doctor dresses is ultimately up to their personal preferences.

What shoes do NHS doctors wear?

Although there isn’t a strict guideline regarding footwear choices for NHS doctors, comfortable, supportive, and easy-to-clean shoes are typically preferred. It’s essential for their footwear to provide adequate support during long hours of standing, walking, and moving around the hospital.

Can doctors wear jeans?

Doctors are not generally permitted to wear jeans at work or in a clinical environment. This is due to them being regarded as unprofessional and overly casual. In casual settings, such as on weekends or when at home, doctors will however frequently wear jeans.

Final Thoughts

The majority of healthcare facilities will have their own dress codes and policies… although I’d be willing to bet most doctors won’t have read them!

That’s because the rules and expectations of doctors’ attire are fairly consistent between settings- wear something professional and practical.

What doctors wear will vary between parts of the country, hospitals and individuals, but as a healthcare worker you can rarely go wrong with smart, sensible and comfortable attire.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.