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Length of Your Doctor's Lab Coat Has a Special Meaning

Updated on July 31, 2018
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Margaret Minnicks has been an online writer for many years. She researches and shares remedies for using certain products for illnesses.

Different Lengths of Doctors' Lab Coats

It is a universal sign that doctors wear white lab coats. Most people know about that. However, not many people know that not all doctors wear a coat of the same length. The various lengths of the coats mean something different.

You might have observed that the white coats are not always the same length on the doctors and you thought it was a personal preference. That is not the case at all. Each length is significant because of the doctor's position and how long he or she has studied to be in that particular job. The length of the coat is based on the hierarchy of the doctor.

This is more obvious in a medical center or hospital where several physicians are on duty. If you see only one in your doctor's office, you probably would not notice because there aren't others you can compare it to.

The next time you go to the hospital or medical center, check out the different lengths of the white lab coats the doctors wear. The different lengths mean something. So, what do the lengths mean?

The length of the white lab coat is not a personal preference.

The White Coat Tradition

Surgeons were the first to wear the white lab coat. Then, hospital doctors and general practitioners in their private offices began wearing them. By 1915, wearing white coats had become the customary thing to do. Doctors going on home visits are not required to wear the white coat.

It is a tradition for doctors to wear white lab coats while working in a doctor's office, hospital and medical center. Doctors start out wearing short white coats to symbolize their commitment to lifelong learning. As they continue to study, the coats they wear become longer and longer.

From the short length of the white coat worn by medical students to the full-length ones worn by most physicians is a long-standing tradition and remains a quick way for patients to identify the role of their care providers.

To this day, more than 90 percent of medical schools in the United States have a "White Coat Ceremony" where new students are given a short white coat at the beginning of their studies. When they graduate, they get a long white lab coat.

Short lab coat
Short lab coat

Short White Lab Coat

Medical students and residents usually wear short white coats and licensed physicians serve patients in long white coats.

Most medical students traditionally have a short coat presented to them in a symbolic white coat ceremony when they begin medical school. The length of the coat represents the medical student's journey on the way to becoming a resident.

Medium length lab coats
Medium length lab coats

Medium Length White Lab Coat

It doesn't mean physicians who wear short or medium length lab coats are not qualified to do what they are assigned to do. However, it does mean they can't do what doctors with longer coats are assigned to do.

Medium length coat wearer can take the medical history of patients. They can diagnose and prescribe lab tests, treatment, and medication with approval from a supervising physician. They usually have a master’s degree plus 2,000 hours of training with patients. The white coat is a little longer than those of new doctors, but it is shorter than those of longtime physicians.

Long white lab coats
Long white lab coats

Long White Lab Coat

After completing all requirement and becoming a licensed physician, doctors are upgraded to the full-length white coat to symbolize their accomplishment. This coat comes all the way down to the knee.

When people become licensed physicians, they are advanced to the knee-length white lab coat. The full-length coat to symbolize their accomplishment. Remember, only physicians have graduated and are licensed should be wearing the long white coat. The education for this privilege is after 3 to 7 years of training after medical school.

Dr. Akshay Desai, a cardiologist, says the long coat is evidence of having completed many years of training, and those who wear the long white lab coat should wear it with pride. It is evident to patients, families, and other hospital staff members that the person is a full-fledged attending physician.

Reactions to the Length of the White Coats

The white coat tradition is dying. That's because some physicians have been complaining about the practice for years especially since the hospital no longer launder the free of charge as they do with scrubs. Besides, some doctors don't feel its appropriate to set doctors apart. After all, they work as a team.

According to a U.S. study, some specialists, like pediatricians and psychiatrists, have given up wearing the white coat because it is scary to some patients who suffer "white-coat hypertension." That means their blood pressure goes sky high when they see a doctor in a white coat no matter what the length is. White is the color of hope and the lab coat should be the symbol of the healer but not for people who suffer from this condition.

According to surveys, most patients like to see their doctors in white coats of different lengths. This helps them figure out how much training they have had.

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      13 months ago

      Some of this is kind of true but there are so many inaccuracies it is hard to call it true. For example, Doctors do not acquire "Masters Degrees", unless they are doing it outside of their medical education. Also, Medical students in short coats frequently do many of the tasks that the author claims "Doctors with masters degrees" (again, not a "thing") perform. It is true, however, that coat length has meaning. That meaning differs from hospital to hospital (or system to system).


      Short coat with 3/4 sleeves means Med Student

      Short coat with full sleeves means intern

      Medium coat means resident

      Full-length coat means Attending Physician (finished residency).

      Of course, nowadays in the "everyone gets a trophy" era, these traditions are frequently meaningless. One may see MANY people in a hospital wearing full coats and none of them may be attending Physicians. Not that that is WRONG, per-se but the sight recognition of what the coats mean is largely gone. One may see nutritionists, pharmacists, and even nurses/nursing administrators wearing full-length coats in many facilities. Others (like Harvard) dictate that all physicians of any level wear short coats to signify that we are all still learning.

    • revmjm profile imageAUTHOR

      Margaret Minnicks 

      2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Chitrangada Sharan, thanks for reading and commenting about the length of doctors' white lab coats. I didn't know much about it either until I did the research. Then I wanted to share with others like you.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Nice and useful information shared by you. I wasn’t aware of this, that the length of the white coats differ, according to the training and experience of the doctors.

      Thanks for sharing this interesting information!

    • revmjm profile imageAUTHOR

      Margaret Minnicks 

      2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Patty, thanks for reading and commenting about the white lab coat issue for medical personnel.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      2 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      This is all very interesting and I think our local Ohio hospitals used to use this system of coat length. Today, all our Red Cross technicians wear knee-length white coats and I do so as well as a medical researcher and a psych consultant at times - I'm not even a doctor!

      Thanks for this interesting history.


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