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This is an email I received last week:

Hi Mike,

This may be an odd question, but I heard you reference something about attire that doctors should wear while practicing dentistry and didn’t catch your whole comment.

I have always worn a shirt and tie with a smock while working, however, in the practice that I purchased the Doctor wore scrub top and bottom.  When I came in, I also wore scrub top and bottom to keep things as consistent as possible for the patients during the transition.  It has been three years now so I think I can wear anything I wish.  For some reason, I just don’t feel all that professional in scrubs, especially when meeting new patients.

I practice in the suburbs of Spokane, Washington, where the common attire is North Face, Patagonia, Columbia, etc. Some people wear camo as a fashion choice.  You don’t commonly see people in shirt and tie walking around.  

Any thoughts on this?  Would I be overdressing in a shirt and tie and not knowing my audience?


My answer:

You are right.  You might be overdressing if you wore a shirt and tie. Just like you would never want your reception area to have nicer furniture than your average patient would have in their homes, what you wear can help or hurt you.  The only reason we wore scrubs is because in the early 90’s there was a 20/20 TV segment that said that we did not sterilize our dental hand pieces.  Which was true, we only cleaned and scrubbed with an anti-bacterial/virus solution.  No autoclave heat.  To counter this we began sterilizing and wearing scrubs so that we looked like “real doctors”.  Little did we know that those same “real doctors” don’t even wipe things down, or clean a treatment room. They just tear off a three foot length of butcher paper and stick another patient in the exam room. 30 years later we are still wearing scrubs.  I think scrubs are no longer the standard and slacks and a pressed shirt (no tie) is probably better.  We don’t want to alienate our clients in blue jeans and a tee shirt, nor do we want to appear too casual.  The “authority” of being a doctor plays in our favor.  Our patients want us to look and talk like their idea of a doctor.  So yes, it is fine to change your dress code, but don’t go too far. Moderation with a consideration of your patient demographics is a constant in almost every practice management decision.

The way I always looked at this is that I want to put my best foot forward. I found that looking the part made me feel the part. The way I looked (hair, face, clothes, etc.) helped boost my opinion of myself because I liked the way I looked. I felt more confident and it showed. Does that lead to increased patient acceptance of your treatment plan? I believe it does.

What you wear is one of those small elements that build an entire brand for your practice. Everything matters, and it is great that you are taking a new look at staging the practice for success. One last point might be that we need to stand out in small ways. Doing what other dentists won’t do will put a spotlight on your practice. This is how you Summit.

Michael Abernathy, DDS
[email protected]
972-523-4660 cell


PS – If you’re a female dentist, it is likely even more important to not wear scrubs. Unfortunately, many patients will still make the mistaken assumption that you’re an assistant or hygienist. With very few exceptions, the super successful female dentists I’ve met through the years wear dresses plus a lab coat/jacket. Always remember: For most humans, perception is reality.   (MG)