Doctor Patient Relations

Do You Have a Professional Appearance that Your Patients Respect?

By Diane Palombi, OD

We all have own personal styles, but one thing we should keep in mind is to dress in a way that instills confidence in our professional abilities. Your personal attire should never distract from your authority as an eyecare expert, or make your patients question your judgement.

It is important to tailor your attire to the expectations of your community and patient base. I began my career in the 1980s in Missouri, with the expectation of a fairly conservative doctor attire. The youngest generation of doctors today, especially those based in urban centers, may make their patients feel most at home by showing off multiple tattoos and piercings.

The most important rule of thumb is make sure you meet your patients’ idea of what a professional, competent doctor should look like, and that none of your patients are made uncomfortable by how you present yourself.

Forgetting about your appearance, or leaving it to chance, isn’t sufficient. After all, if you cannot take care of your own appearance, how well are you going to take care of your patient? It is important that both you and your staff look clean and professional.

My good friend just had her annual eye exam. Her doctor had decided to retire, selling his practice to another optometric group. All the doctors were new. My friend had a lot to say about her new doctor, whom she will not be seeing again.

When the doctor first walked into the exam room, she shook my friend’s hand. It was a nice, friendly gesture, which was lost because all my friend could focus on were the doctor’s very long acrylic nails that were painted flamboyantly ( i.e. bright colors and glittery embellishments).

My friend said that this doctor was not dressed professionally at all. She had on a flirty dress with low cleavage that would be more appropriate at a cocktail party. Her stilettoes had extremely high pointy heels that could probably kill someone if necessary. The heel strap must have been annoying her since she repeatedly was arranging it on her ankle with her acrylic nails. She was wearing a white lab coat, but it was dirty. In addition, she did not bother to button her lab coat, so her party dress was fully exposed in the front. What’s more, the doctor was wearing excessive jewelry, including several bracelets on her wrists, long necklaces and an ankle bracelet.

To make matters worse, this optometrist’s makeup was more night-time drama than daytime professional. She was wearing heavy dark eyeliner, tons of mascara and smoky eyeshadow. She had long hair, which she did not bother to restrain, so it dangled everywhere. Her long acrylic nails gave my friend pause when the doctor came toward her face with them. She was afraid of being clawed. To top things off, this doctor typed on her office keyboard, and then grabbed my friend’s eyelids without washing her hands or putting on gloves.

“Hope nothing is lurking beneath those sparkly fingernails, so close to my exposed eyes,” my friend said she thought to herself. When my group of friends was discussing this doctor-patient encounter we joked that maybe the doctor was going to a party after work, or perhaps that day’s outfit was her “walk of shame” attire from the previous night.

However I dressed when I was in practice, I was conscious of the need to instill confidence and comfort in my patients.

Keep it Clean
Cleanliness is important in an optometric office. I always wiped off the equipment with cotton balls soaked in alcohol in front of the patient. In addition, I used hand sanitizer in front of the patient when I first came into the room. In the contact lens room, our protocol was for the technician and patient to both wash their hands immediately before proceeding.

Keep it Wholesome
I always dressed office-professional. That meant no short skirts, no revealing tops and no leg-revealing slits. My shoes were dress pumps or flats. Nothing that would work for a party. My nails were short and clean. If I wore polish, it was not chipped.

Limit Perfumes & Colognes
You should also watch your perfume and cologne use. Some patients have allergies or sensitivities. Also, as patients get older, they are more sensitive to certain smells. I have gotten in the car with some of my friends, and been overwhelmed by the amount of perfume they are wearing.

Your breath, and that of your staff, is another “scent” that should not bring discomfort to the patient. It is not a bad idea to keep mouthwash and breath mints in the office. I used it myself, and asked my staff to use it, too.

Be Tidy
I usually kept my hair in a ponytail, French knot or bun when it was long. Patients do not like your hair in their face. Remember, you get very close to the patient’s face when performing procedures like ophthalmoscopy. Your hair must be clean. Oils and dandruff indicate to the patient that cleanliness is not a priority to you. I kept my makeup light, office-professional.

Keep jewelry to a minimum. Long necklaces can get in the way when you examine a patient. Bracelets can get caught on things. Big earrings are a bad idea, too. Patients may wonder how clean your jewelry is if it brushes up against them during an exam.

If No Uniform, Then Clean & Professional
I was not a fan of the white lab coat, but if you wear one, please wear a clean one. The same goes for the staff if they wear uniforms. If they wear street clothes, they need to be clean and professional–no holes or stains.

Taking the care to ensure both you, and your staff, make a professional presentation to patients, reinforcing a sense of security and comfort, pays off. Patients want to return to an office with competent professionals who look the part.

My friend had one final comment on her visit: “Other than to ask her where I can get a pair of those stilettos, I will not be returning to that office, and am in search of a new eye doctor.”

What guidelines do you, and your staff, follow in work attire? Do you wear white lab coats, or a uniform, in your office? What are the most important points to keep in mind when dressing for work as an OD?


Diane Palombi, OD, retired now, is the former owner of Palombi Vision Center in Wentzville, Mo. To contact her:








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