By Gwyn Herbein
Anyone who has ever watched an episode of TLC’s “What Not to Wear” has probably heard hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly discuss how people form opinions of one another based on their clothing. While some of the more stubborn makeover participants maintain that they “don’t care what other people think,” the bottom line is that, in all aspects of life, clothing can define more than just your personal sense of style.
Clothing can convey everything from how you view yourself to your line of work. For chiropractors, clothing can also convey your level of success, or what type of practice you run. From determining
an overall dress code for a practice to deciding whether or not to wear lab coats, what to wear, or not wear, has become a hot topic. While chiropractors should pay attention to their level of comfort given the amount of flexibility and movement the job requires, they should also keep in mind that how they dress can influence the opinion their patients have of them. Today’s Chiropractic LifeStyle consulted several chiropractors to find out how they straddle the line between professionalism and comfort.
Dress for the Job
For Life University alumnus Todd Lesh, the dressing debate came to a head after he graduated and moved to rural Ohio. “My uncle was a chiropractor who had 11 clinics in Ohio. I moved there to train under him and was there for three years,” explains Lesh.
During that time, Lesh wore a tie and a white lab coat to work. Lesh no longer practices as a chiropractor, and the benefit of hindsight has softened his opinion on the issue of dress. “If I were practicing today, I might keep the coat and lose the tie. I’d wear nice slacks and a button-down or polo,” he says. “I think office dress codes have changed dramatically. In the ’80s and ’90s, people wore suits and ties, and they don’t any more.” The bottom line, according to Lesh, is simple. “I dress appropriately for the job I’m doing,” he says.
Dressing appropriately for the job you have is a good overall guideline for most chiropractors, but exactly what that means can be different for each person. “I read a statistic that 55 percent of people will make a judgment on you based on how you look, without meeting you or talking to you,” says Brian Flannery, D.C., a chiropractor at Ferguson Family Chiropractic in Acworth, Ga. With that in mind, says Flannery, “it behooves us to always look our best.”
When Flannery first started practicing, looking his best meant wearing a suit and bow tie to work each day. Word of his unique wardrobe spread like wildfire, until people started telling him that wasn’t necessary. He realized that his more formal attire may have been preventing patients from being as communicative with him as they should have been. “I went from that [more formal look] to taking a more business-casual approach because it’s more comforting to [patients],” he says.
For Flannery, that means nice jeans and a button-down shirt, which exemplifies the casual office environment he strives to maintain. He has also established a dress code for his colleagues in the practice and strives to set a positive example for his staff. “Obviously, we don’t want the women to have anything that’s too revealing or unprofessional,” he explains. “We all dress very similarly.” Flannery says that he has never worn a polo shirt to work because it feels too much like a uniform.
Ben Altadonna, the creator of “The Practice Building Alliance,” which specializes in chiropractic markeintg, practice building and communication strategies, agrees with this assessment. In an article titled “What SHOULD Your Chiropractic Assistants Wear,” Altadonna notes that “polo/logo shirts are great for a physical therapy office or personal training office, but not for a ‘doctor’s’ office.” Instead, he suggests “appropriate business attire.”
Overall, Flannery believes it’s important to maintain a sense of professionalism. “In going into business in general, you see a lot of people whose clothes don’t fit properly,” says Flannery. “That doesn’t give an appearance of professionalism. It gives the impression that you’re sloppy.”
The Great Lab Coat Debate
For many chiropractors, whether or not to wear a lab coat is a big decision that can affect the overall tone of a practice. Some, like Lesh, feel that it’s important to establish a sense of authority with patients. Lesh’s uncle taught him that, in the public’s perception, “the guy in the white coat is never wrong,” and that it was important for chiropractors to set themselves apart as the doctor, so that patients would feel confident that they were in expert hands.
Other chiropractors, however, feel that the inherent sense of authority that comes with being in the medical profession can do a disservice to patients. “I disagree that lab coats should be part of chiropractic attire,” says Flannery. “When the public sees scrubs or a lab coat, they connect that with medicine and with sterility and a ‘doctor is above them’ attitude. It’s a barrier that gets in the way of authenticity.” Ralph Davis, D.C., and the dean of clinics at Life University, agrees with this assessment. “While the white coat is emblematic of physicians, I think it exists to create an ‘I’m the boss, you’re not’ kind of dynamic. It creates difference,” he says.
Davis believes that any kind of uniform creates professional distance, and notes that people tend to seek out others who are similar to them. “You’re not going to hang out with the police officer up the street in his full uniform, gun and badge,” he points out. While the clinic system at LIFE requires students to wear a lab jacket, Davis recommends that his students adopt a business-casual wardrobe underneath the coat.
Location, Location, Location
Another important factor in the clothing debate is where a practice is located and what type of clientele it serves. Business casual or professional attire may mean something different in New York City than it does in rural Texas. “I used to practice in Spring Hill, Fla.,” says Davis. “Business casual in Florida is a nice polo shirt and dress slacks. But if I were practicing in Central Park West in New York, I’d better have an Armani suit and fancy Italian shoes.”
Davis recalls reading a line in the 1988 book “John T. Molloy’s New Dress for Success” that discussed dressing one level above your clients. This lets them know you are successful, but not so much as to be off-putting. Dressing in a similar manner to one’s patients helps maintain their comfort level. “If I were trying to attract a different patient base, or practicing in a different part of town, I might dress differently,” reasons Flannery.
Altadonna also points out that older patients tend to be more conservative, and thus, office staff, particularly younger employees, should wear “conservative business attire,” with perhaps a clinic jacket and nametag.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Davis has a friend who is a huge Jimmy Buffet fan, and who runs a practice that has Caribbean pictures and parrots covering the walls, even though it is “nowhere near the Caribbean.” His friend always wears Hawaiian shirts. Despite the incongruity of his interests with the profession and where he practices, Davis says his friend’s practice is very successful.
Because this type of practice is not guaranteed to be successful, Davis reminds his students that everything communicates: “Everything from the style of your office to how it smells when they walk in the door—Does everything look neat and clean? Do you look neat and clean?” All of these elements combine to create an impression of you and your practice, so it behooves chiropractors to be aware of how their appearance and environment may affect patients’ perceptions.
Use Common Sense
When it comes to how to dress in the office, a little common sense goes a long way. Davis recommends using the “grandmother test,” which means thinking about “if your grandmother walked in the door, what would she have to say about how you’re dressed?” he says. Sometimes that means putting aside your own personal sense of style for the sake of the comfort of those around you.
Flannery likes to distinguish between comfort and style, which can also address any concerns chiropractors may have about their ability to move around while adjusting. “If you wear clothes that fit properly, there’s no issue in how you’re adjusting,” he says.
Above all, chiropractors should always be aware of the needs and attitudes of their patients, and adjust accordingly. “[Chiropractic] is a high-touch profession,” Davis says. “As such, the relationship [component that clothing can convey] needs to be a very high priority of the person practicing.”