The Importance of Symbols: doctors and their (dirty) lab coats

The New York Times reports that the American Medical Association is considering doing away with the venerable symbol of the physician: the lab coat. There’s a very good reason to get rid of lab coats: they’re dirty. But the symbol of the lab coat is far more important. The New York Times reports the empirical flaw in wearing lab coats:

The group’s Council on Science and Public Health is looking at the role clothing plays in transmitting bacteria and other microbes and is expected to announce its findings next year.

This empirical finding shouldn’t be surprsing. We also know, for example, that male physician’s ties are wearable petri dishes. The verdict ought to be clear, therefore that we should get rid of lab coats. Not so fast, say physicians.

Getting rid of the lab coat is getting rid of one of the most important symbols of a physician’s identity. Dr. Richard Cohen told the New York Times how important that lab coat is:

“When a patient shares intimacies with you and you examine them in a manner that no one else does, you’d better look like a physician — not a guy who works at Starbuck’s.”

Here is the lesson for designers: empirical “fact” is not the whole story. What role any particular symbol plays in social life is just as critical. What’s fascinating about this story is that physicians are now trained in “evidence-based medicine,” meaning they are trained to diagnose and treat based on more “rigourous” science (I have my doubts about that rigour, but that’s another blog post).

Yet here is a clearly “scientific” reality about the danger of treating patients while wearing a bacteria-infested lab coat and/or tie, and physicians continue to wear them. For all their protestations of “evidence,” physicians too are social beings, embedded in a social world. They too must convey an identity, even if the symbols used for doing so compromise their ability to complete their stated vocational mission.

The symbol is powerful. Designers who base their decisions on so-called “evidence” ought to pay attention to other kinds of evidence, such as the enduring patterns of social interactions. We should pay attention to any enduring patterns of social behaviour but *especially* those which fly in the face of supposed “logic.”

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One response to “The Importance of Symbols: doctors and their (dirty) lab coats

  1. So can anyone explain why they can’t just have MORE lab coats. So that they can change into clean ones regularly?

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