One patient who was horribly injured and disfigured as a result of medical negligence that bordered on medical recklessness was asked by her medical malpractice lawyer during their initial meeting how she chose the particular doctor that caused her to suffer such devastating harm.
Her response was that the doctor was an older gentleman with combed white hair and bifocals who came into the examining room wearing his well-tailored white lab coat with his name neatly embroidered over his left chest, and that he “looked professional” and reminded her of her beloved grandfather.
What was the lawyer’s first thought when he heard that statement from the prospective client? I love and respect my grandfather but I would never trust him to perform a delicate surgical procedure on me or any of my family members!
Many of us grew up with expectations, reinforced by our experiences, that our treating physicians, whether they had treated us on numerous times in the past or we were meeting them for the first time, would be dressed in a white lab coat with their names, followed by “M.D.”, prominently displayed in fancy script over the chest pocket. (More recently, doctors may be dressed in scrubs (with matching pants and short sleeve shirts) but the effect on patients is the same.) If a previously unknown individual is clothed in the traditional, expected manner (white lab coat with name emblazoned in the proper location) and the encounter takes place in the expected location (a physician’s examining room or a patient’s hospital room), then our minds automatically subvert to complacency and subservience to that person, without questioning whether that person is actually a physician, whether that person is actually the person whose name appears on the white lab coat, or whether that person is competent to provide us medical care — the white lab coat with an embroidered name automatically results in the conditioned passive response by us.
White Lab Coats And Salivating Dogs
Ivan Pavlov was a noted Russian physiologist who won the 1904 Nobel Prize for his work studying digestion in dogs. Pavlov’s study was designed to measure the saliva production of the dogs when a variety of edible and non-edible items were produced (salivation is an uncontrolled and automatic reflexive response to the presentation of food). However, Pavlov noticed that the dogs in his study began salivating whenever his assistants entered the room, even in the absence of food. Pavlov set out to discover why that was occurring.
Pavlov determined that the dogs were responding to seeing the assistants’ white lab coats, which the dogs had come to associate with the presentation of food (called a “conditioned response” and referred to as “classical conditioning”).
White Lab Coat Syndrome
We have been conditioned, just like Pavlov’s dogs, to respond in a certain manner to the sight of a doctor in a white lab coat (reinforced on occasion by the doctor also wearing a stethoscope around his/her neck). Our conditioning first began when our pediatricians cared for as children and we observed our parents’ deferential interaction with the white-coated individuals. In short, we have been conditioned throughout our lives that a person wearing a white lab coat in the health care context means that we automatically defer to that person’s superior position and not question that person’s authority, knowledge, or decisions regarding our medical condition or treatment.
This life-long conditioning helps explain why patients continue to be injured and harmed by incompetent, reckless, or negligent physicians and other lab-coated health care providers, even when, in hindsight, a second-opinion should have been requested or time taken to fully digest and understand the proposed medical treatment before acquiescing to the treatment plan. When we see a white lab coat on a health care professional, our eyes disengage our intellect that would otherwise serve us well in reaching the right decisions regarding our own medical care.
It is not by happenstance that lab coats are white — the color white represents truth, innocence, life, light, purity, and enlightenment. There is no better way to exude medical competence than to wear a white lab coat with one’s name embroidered over the heart, even if the coat cloaks incompetence and danger.
If you or someone you know may have been injured or suffered other harms as a result of medical malpractice in your U.S. state, you should promptly consult with a local medical malpractice attorney who may investigate your malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice lawsuit, if appropriate.
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