Roy sat on the chair in front of me puffing and panting struggling even to hold his head up and make eye contact. I was, as usual running late, but had no desire to hurry him. It was at least a minute before he could string words together to make a sentence.
Maria had my medical students entranced. She had come to teach them about living with COPD, a chronic lung disease, but in the context of her life of destitution, homelessness, alcoholism, depression, domestic violence and epilepsy – caused by a violent head injury – it soon became clear that COPD was the least of her problems.
Simon answered the entry-phone when I buzzed and then let me in. He works front-of-house at up-market bicycle shop, Cyclefit. He smiled, introduced himself, looked me in the eye and shook hands, “Very nice to meet you”. “You too” I replied, slightly taken aback. Unlike anyone I had ever met in a bike shop (and I have visited far more bikes shops than I can remember) he was wearing a freshly ironed shirt, waistcoat and silk tie, knotted in a perfect half-Windsor. His sleeves were rolled up, ready for hard graft if necessary, his tie was tucked out of the way so as not to get tangled in a chain. He was smart and prepared for physical work.
Barely 2 weeks later I walked into the reception area at 8am wearing wool trousers, a silk tie from the Alhambra, a woollen waistcoat from Oldtown and a fitted shirt from Thomas Pink that I had bought for a wedding a year before, but not worn since. ‘What is going on?’, I had been wondering, ‘when someone who works in a bike shop, looks smarter than a GP?’
The receptionists stopped in shock. “Wow! Look at you! What’s all this for?” I said it was for the CQC visit, which handily coincided with my new look, but then I explained about Simon and said that I wanted to make more of an effort because I thought it would make me, my patients and the people I work with feel better. The feedback from the receptionists was clear – they liked it.
Patients immediately began to comment, it seemed to lift their spirits, many commented – because I have such good continuity of care, most of my patients noticed the change, and they liked it too. I felt good, and so did they. Sartorial therapy.
What of Roy and Maria?
Roy was wearing old army boots, but the toes were so bright, you could see your reflection in them. His trousers were perfectly creased, his shirt ironed, his tie straight and his old sheepskin jacket as smart as it could be. “How long does it take you to get shaved and dressed every morning, Roy?” I asked. He looked at me and laughed. “Doc, this is the first time I’ve been out in nearly three weeks. Most days I don’t get out of my pyjamas.”
“So how long did it take you to get ready today?”
“Oh, it’s, what 7pm now… most of the afternoon, but mentally… a couple of days.”
Maria was wearing patent leather shoes, old and clearly uncomfortable and unsuitable for the cold weather. Her jeans were stiff from being recently washed and a nylon jumper with snowflakes covered a crumpled blouse. Her hair was sprayed up and her make-up thick , but carefully applied. At the end of our teaching session I tried to give her a £10 Marks and Spencer voucher – which we give to all our patients who come in to help teach, but she firmly refused. “This blouse was from M&S, but I don’t have an iron, so I have to find something to cover it up,” she told us. “I’d never get to M&S these days”. I wanted to offer her cash instead, worried about it for a bit, not wanting to embarrass her, offered it, she got embarrassed and refused, I got embarrassed. The students watched, embarrassed.
I helped Roy stand up, it seemed to take him the whole consultation to catch his breath. “You know, Roy – I’ve got to say this, but I really appreciate how much effort it must have taken for you to come here today, all that for barely 10 minutes, and all we’ve really done is chat and fine tune your medication. You look terrific, I mean, what I mean is, I can really appreciate what it must have taken for you to look as good as you do, and, well, I just wanted to say I’ve noticed”.
“Thanks doc” he said.
Patients frequently make enormous efforts when they come to see us. If we focus too narrowly on the disease there is a danger that overlook the context of their lives and the sheer effort involved in overcoming breathlessness, destitution, mental and physical exhaustion so severe that even the simplest of tasks, like washing and dressing have to be saved for special occasions.
Dressing up for my patients has made a difference, I don’t wear a suit, but I do look smart: I cycle to work, shower and dress with sartorial intent. Perhaps most patients don’t care or don’t notice, but for those that do it matters, and it is one way to show respect for my patients whose efforts, in comparison are extraordinary and humbling.
Understanding the role of physician attire on patient perceptions: BMJ Open 2015
The Clothes Make the Doctor. Atlantic 2014