Clinical rotations, in your last years of med school, take you away from the books and into the hospital. Finally getting to face the public, it’s important you look the part. Dressing well is all about that.
What you wear on clinical rotations comes down to what you’re doing. Scrubs or business casual are the two main options. The first is easy to solve. The second? A little more tricky.
This guide walks you through it.
What Do Medical Students Wear?
In pre-clinical years med students tend to wear whatever they find comfortable.
During clinical rotations it comes down to two scenarios:
- Procedure days (bloods, catheters, cannulas etc)
- Client appointment days (patient consults, observation etc)
The first scenario calls for scrubs (any color). They’re easy to clean, hygienic and protect from contamination.
The second calls for more “typical clothes”. What we like to call “medical business casual” (more on this later).
This is more about appearing professional to the patient.
What you don’t want to do is to take either to the extreme. Too formal (three-piece suit or cocktail dress etc) is over the top and impractical. Too casual (wife beater and colorful sleeve tattoos etc) could send the wrong message. Reading the situation is key – as this med student story shows.
Professional Vs Casual
A med student should dress like a med student. Professional when in a clinical environment. Smart-casual when in lectures or class.
Assuming you go to lectures of course…
Dress Code for Clinical Rotations
Most medical schools have dress codes. Usually they issue these ahead of time before you start your rotations. They’re also university-dependent.
The main things that can factor into dress codes include:
- Type of hospital ward: a surgery ward is very different from family med.
- Hospital culture: is it liberal? Or conservative?
- Country of study: broader religious laws etc that could dictate public dress codes.
- Hygiene and health and safety laws: in place to prevent accidents and injury. Also to control communicable diseases.
So although good for helping students work out what to wear, dress codes can vary a lot.
Another problem is sometimes dress codes are far from clear. Usually they’re meant more as guidelines rather than a list of mandatory rules.
Following these general tips might help you navigate them better…
Some clinical rotations (emergency, paediatrics etc) can get quite messy. From that standpoint it doesn’t make sense to go and drop a fat stack of cash on many outfits. Think practical rather than GQ photoshoot.
Recommended stores among the med school crowd:
- NY & Company
- TK Maxx
Even Thrift stores and local second-hand shops are worth a look. Don’t go spending big.
Another good tip; wait for discount days.
- Machine Washable
Make sure the clothes you buy can surive many washes. Blood, vomit and urine can be hard to get out. You don’t want to spend hours doing that by hand. Unless you have something like a bleach pen of course.
Sometimes hospital dress codes mention jewelry, other times they don’t. The best way to play it is to go as minimal as possible. Go for a suitable earring length if you’re allowed to have piercings. Be careful with necklaces and bracelets too, especially if they’re expensive.
ObGyn resident Franish has some very good tips in this regard…
- Makeup and Nails
Manicured nails are going to go to waste on the wards. It’s much better to keep them short and unlacquered if your rotation is particularly hands on. Again I’m no expert but consider makeup carefully too. Remember you’re working/studying in a hospital not a nightclub.
- Perfume and Cologne
Yes hospitals (and certain rotations in particular) can smell. Wearing perfume or cologne isn’t a good move. It can exacerbate allergies in patients (especially asthma).
Deodorant should be fine though!
- Waterproof Watch
Another top tip, especially as it’s important to stay on top of the time, is to have a good waterproof watch. Go for something inexpensive obviously. Getting it scratched or stained is par for the course.
Medical Business Casual
Medical business casual is how med students should dress for the most part. Fortunately, this is much the same as business casual. Give or take a couple of considerations!
Here’s what’s generally advised for either gender…
Button shirts or plain dress shirts are a good choice. These are smart but comfortable enough to wear. They also have lots of options for customisation via colors, styles, patterns etc too.
Shirts go well with neutral colored slacks or chinos. Chinos offer slightly more versatility than slacks. Personally I find them more comfortable and breathable to wear too.
Sweaters work well in the winter. But this depends on how you find the temperatures on the wards you work in. Lightweight ones are a safe bet though.
Round the look off with a decent belt. Try and match it to your shoe colors if possible.
Obviously I’m not the best placed person to tell female colleagues what to wear. But I do have a pair of eyes and, what I like to think, a brain in my head at least. So perhaps you won’t get too turned off at my suggestions.
Again the key is not to overthink it. Simple button shirts or blouses fit the smart business casual look. Again with a neat pair of slacks or long trousers.
The reason I say this is because skirts are more complicated. Particularly in the sense of length, style and practicality. But don’t just take my word for it, Doc with the Locs also thinks similarly…
As well as sweaters, cardigans can be a good look for women too. They can also bring a bit more personality to a look.
I’ve gone into a lot of detail about what type of shoes are best for clinical rotations before. There seems to be two areas of debate; sneakers or boots. Comfort is key.
One thing to bear in mind when it comes to shoes is open-toes. In almost all hospitals these won’t be allowed for hygiene reasons. You don’t want to end up getting a staph infection.
A good tip for my female readers (again from Doc with the Locs). Go with flats on the first day of rotations. That way you can assess the environment (and your options) better.
Socks are also a very overlooked subject. Don’t wear ankle socks. They offer too much exposure. Also don’t wear white socks either – they’ll get dirty-looking fast.
Do Medical Students Wear White Coats?
In the US yes. In the UK no. In Bulgaria (and most other European medical schools) where I go? We have the choice.
White coats are more of an American thing though for the most part. Something that’s required to be worn over the business casual look discussed above.
For med students that are expected to wear them (I’m way more of a scrubs guy) here are a few pointers…
Comfort Over Style
White coats, although they do look professional, are more practical in intention. Designed to keep doctors protected from patient projectiles, it’s hard to make them look stylish. So go for comfort and close-fitting options first.
Coats, due to the polyester or cotton materials they’re made from, are easy to crease. To keep them looking great (and yourself professional) make sure you iron them often.
White is hard to clean. Maybe consider dry cleaning your coats every once in a while to get the stubborn stains out. Also definitely keep a couple on rotation.
Medical Student Wardrobe Tips
Having discussed the main items of a med students’ wardrobe, it’s time to think about more general tips.
The first thing I want to highlight? There’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer on what to wear. Most hospital and school dress codes offer a lot of freedom of choice.
Depending what the situation is then, feel free to infuse your look with a bit of personality. Just because it’s medicine doesn’t mean it has to be boring.
UK medic Faye Bates’ had a lot to say in this regard…
The biggest things that should factor into your med school wardrobe? Comfort and freedom of movement. Clinical rotations are long. Some involve a lot of rushing around from department to department, bed to bed etc.
You want to at least be able to let your skin breathe and your blood flow. Without going all out to offend your patients either!
Clinical rotations are stressful enough without having to worry about what to wear. Keep things as simple as possible, watch out for dress codes and think what your style of dress says about you.
Remember; there’s no one correct way of doing it. Only one that fits your set of circumstances.
But remember it’s medicine not a catwalk.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in digital marketing and journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.