The starched long-sleeved white coat up to the knees that doctors have worn for decades is now becoming obsolete in many places, but the wild swing to anything “fanciful” could be another matter.

I learnt how the dress of a doctor sometimes affects relationship with his patient, the hard way. Mrs Sinha (name changed), who had been in and out of hospital several times due to a chronic liver problem, confided that her confidence sapped each time Dr A was on duty. The reason: he dressed shabbily in crumpled loud-coloured audaciously printed T-shirts, jeans and chappals, kept dirty stubble on his face, and had a sweaty odour. “How can I trust and confide in a doctor who dresses so carelessly, and expect him to be careful with my treatment?”

A person’s nature, attitude and character are often reflected through his attire. A doctor’s dress may help convey a subtle message to his patients and their relatives. In present times when fashion and dress codes change so frequently and radically, doctors are often confused on how to dress appropriately yet smartly. Some stick to the classic “old look” of wearing dull coloured loose pleated trousers, standard white regular collared tucked shirts and black shoes. This vintage look make many patients wonder if the doctor’s medical knowledge is as old as his dress code.

Or take the one in the clumsily-tailored safari suit. You can bet that this officious “babu doctor” knows the government rule-book with its loopholes upside down, pays home visits to the local brand of VIPs around town, but is many steps behind time in his medical knowledge and skills.

At the other end, some doctors dress to hospital as they would to a beach party, with flashy batik silk shirts, striped pants and shocking white shoes, their dress evoking gasps and stirring up discussion among patients waiting their turn. Imagine trying to counsel shocked parents of a child with blood cancer, in such a dress!

What they overlook is that appearance and attitude create the first impression on the patient and his relatives, knowledge and skills are tasted later. “I expect a doctor to dress smartly and formally, so that the first look instils confidence in me”, says a fashion designer patient of mine.

Light coloured plain or pin-striped shirts, trousers (not jeans!) and shoes are the basics. A neck-tie adds to the professional look especially in metros; it may however make doctors look formidably unreachable to poor and rural patients.

A visiting medical student from England shared how British hospitals insist on a strict dress code. They even forbid doctors from wearing “marks” or indicators of their ethnic and religious background, such as a cross, so that patients do not perceive them as biased. The issue here is not about a doctor’s freedom. It is about how he can look professional and make his patient feel comfortable, relaxed and trusting.

Dr Gourdas Choudhuri is the Director & Head of Department of Gastroenterology and Hepato-biliary Sciences at Fortis Memorial Research Institute.