A doctor’s white lab coat is his uniform — a visual cue to patients that he (or she) is a man (or woman) of science, an authority figure they can trust. But some docs are ditching those hard-earned sartorial symbols in favor of short sleeves.

Why? The coats can carry germs and transfer them to patients, according to Philip Lederer, MD, an infectious disease fellow at Harvard Medical School. His uniform of choice: street clothes, with shirt sleeves rolled up. He goes “bare below the elbows” — a practice the United Kingdom adopted for its physicians in 2008 — which means short sleeves, no watch or jewelry and no tie.

In an online post, Lederer writes about why lab coats should be hung up for good:

“You wouldn’t want to be cared for by a doctor who doesn’t wash his or her hands. You wouldn’t want to be operated on with instruments that weren’t sterilized or stay in a hospital room that wasn’t cleaned regularly. Why would you want to be treated by a doctor wearing a white coat that hasn’t been washed in a week? Many white coats are covered in bacteria like MRSA – they are dirty. And it’s time to hang them up for good.”

Lab coats are infrequently laundered, according to a 2007 University of Maryland study, in which found 65 percent of doctors and other medical personnel treating patients reported they change their lab coat less than once a week (15 percent reported they change it less than once a month). That same study showed when doctors and nurses lean over a patient with MRSA bacteria , their white coats and uniforms pick up that bacteria 65 percent of the time, allowing it to be carried to other patients.

Many doctors are following Lederer's lead. Others plan to keep wearing the white coats. The Boston Globe reports :

“Dr. Michael S. Calderwood, a Brigham & Women’s Hospital infectious disease specialist, is keeping his white coat. Studies that measured the bacterial contamination on white coats compared with other clothing did not find a difference, he said. Meanwhile, at least six studies show patients prefer professional attire, and some found the white coat inspired confidence and willingness to share information.”

What do you think? Do you care if your doctor wears a lab coat or not? Does your doctor’s attire change your opinion of her professional ability?

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Angela is a Pulitzer Prize-winning digital editor with more than 15 years of experience delivering news and information to audiences worldwide. Prior to joining SafeBee, she was the features editor for Boston.com at The Boston Globe, overseeing health, travel, entertainment, business and lifestyle coverage. Before moving to features, she was the news and homepage editor, covering stories such as the Boston Marathon bombing, Red Sox World Series victories, presidential elections, a papal inauguration, and more. Her favorite safety tip: Clean your phone! The average cell phone has 18 times more germs than the toilet handle in a men’s restroom.