Sexily Dressed Doctors May Be Dangerous

First Sunday and now Thursday nights have gotten steamy with "Grey's Anatomy" on the TV airwaves.

Beauties like Kate Walsh and Patrick Dempsey, to name two, have turned medicine into a rather erotic profession.

"Everyone watches 'Grey's Anatomy' and thinks that all doctors do at hospitals is have sex," said Dr. Ryan Stanton, resident in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Kentucky.

Real-life doctors don't have the on-call sexual escapades that "Grey's Anatomy" stars do, but a lot of young doctors dress like they do -- and their sexy clothing could be hurting their patients.

That sexual message may detract from a doctor's professional demeanor and undermine the patient-doctor visit. Patients who cannot connect with their doctors may not get the best possible treatment.

Young Doctors Gone Wild

The passion of "Grey's Anatomy" seems to have infected the forthcoming generation of doctors in the same way sex has seeped into other corners of American corporate culture.

That passion could threaten the health of some patients by eroding the doctor-patient relationship.

"Medical students, house staff and physicians in practice increasingly emulate the dress of their media counterparts," said Dr. Joseph Zanga, professor of pediatrics at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

In step with their media counterparts, upcoming medical students and residents are rebelling against the traditional Norman Rockwell white-coat doctor's image by wearing mini skirts, rumpled oxford shirts without ties, unshaven chops, high heels, and other things that may be considered medically inappropriate.

"I think of the physician I always see walking through the clinic with shorts on and his white coat. He doesn't look like he is wearing pants," Stanton said.

Medicine is not the only industry infected by this new sexual energy. It's happening everywhere -- on Capitol Hill, perhaps even at your local news station.

"Our overall way of dress has become more casual," said Dr. Carolyn Eaton of San Antonio, Texas.

Although casual dress might now be more common among students and residents, it isn't necessarily accepted.

"Sex may sell in the media but not in a medical practice office," Zanga said.

A doctor's sexy image could cost him or her a patient's respect -- and could endanger a patient's health.

"I think that the way we dress -- along with the way we interact with patients when we're dressed this way -- is directly linked to the amount of respect we garner from them," said Dr. Amy Lewis Hennessy, an ophthalmology resident at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, Va.

"We need a patient's respect in order to have them trust us as far as the medical treatment or the surgery we offer to them," she said.

Poor dress could make it more difficult for doctors to help patients.

"If your patient doesn't trust or respect you -- even if it's only based on how you dress or present yourself -- then you're immediately at a disadvantage to help that patient," said Dr. Scott Terranella, chief resident of the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Professional Appearance Can Garner Patient Trust

A doctor's professional appearance and the respect he or she shows patients with that appearance is central to providing good care. The doctor-patient relationship could be compromised by what a patient considers inappropriate dress.

Patients who cannot connect with their doctors may not get the best possible treatment.

"It is our responsibility, as treating physicians, to respect their vulnerability as much as their privacy. Our dress and demeanor must reflect this caring," said Dr. Nortin Hadler, author of "The Last Well Person."

A 2005 American Medical Journal study concluded that patients overwhelmingly preferred physicians in professional attire with a white coat.

Researchers asked roughly 400 patients and visitors in a hospital waiting room to look at pictures of doctors, all dressed differently, and to state their preferences on physician attire, as well as their trust and willingness to discuss sensitive issues.

The results were clear and still hold true one year later.

"When we deny [patients] that comfort -- because they are offended by our mode of dress or behavior -- we are not giving them our best," said Dr. Cliff Saper, chairman of the department of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Dress Codes May Restrict Independent Thinkers

The question of whether doctors should be allowed to dress freely still isn't a straightforward one.

Doctors are typically strong-willed, independent thinkers. How else could they have gotten through med school?

Clothing restrictions in such a demanding profession may feel unjust to some, particularly because recommendations differ across genders.

"I remember [my husband] complaining how unfair it was that I could just throw on slacks and a sweater while he had to fuss with a shirt, slacks and tie," said Jeannette Byers, who attended medical school alongside her husband.

Byers is now an emergency-room physician at Hackley Hospital in Muskegon, Mich.

One doctor recalled her own experience as a budding clinician.

"I was a med student in the '70s, when students argued that professionalism and competence would trump our patients' reactions to our long hair -- women and men -- men's facial hair, and sometimes casual dress," said Dr. Paula Hillard, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and of pediatrics at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

"We bridled at any suggestions that we were any less effective as clinicians. Fast-forward to today -- students make the same arguments that their piercings, midriff-baring [outfits] and tattoos do not undermine their credibility or abilities."

But patients may argue that a doctor's ability to express himself or herself as an independent thinker does not trump a patient's comfort level.

"If I go to the ER, and the doctor walks in with a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, with long hair in a ponytail, then I feel very uncomfortable," said Jennifer Sanders, a patient from Fairfield, Mich.

Casual dress is OK in some places. But some hospitals have very strict dress codes. Many hospitals have their own dress codes that allow doctors to forego ties, for example, but that forbid open-toe shoes.

"Mayo Clinic does have a strong dress and decorum policy. Essentially it is coat and tie for men and appropriate equivalent business attire for women, both in the administrative staff and among physicians," said Lee Aase, media relations for the Mayor Clinic.

The Mayo Clinic believes attire and patient confidence are connected.

"We do not do 'Casual Fridays' or other exceptions. We see dress and decorum as a symbol of professionalism and of respect for patients and their families," Aase said.

Regardless of the house rules, doctors say the sexual implications behind sexy clothes are unprofessional and hard to ignore.

When a physician -- male or female -- is dressed somehow seductively or comfortably, "it is hard not to infer some sort of sexual message," Stanton said.

Some Doctors Welcome the Change

One well-respected and long-practicing doctor agreed that hospital dress was becoming more casual.

But he doesn't necessarily object to that change.

"I have not seen the plunging neckline," he said. "I would like to, though!"