Effect of physician attire on patient perceptions of empathy in Japan: a quasi-randomized controlled trial in primary care

BMC Fam Pract. 2021 Mar 31;22(1):59. doi: 10.1186/s12875-021-01416-w.


Background: There is limited quantitative research on the effect of physician attire on patient-physician relationships. This study aimed to measure the influence of Japanese family physicians' attire on the "human" aspects of medical care in terms of patient-perceived relational empathy.

Methods: This was a multicenter, prospective, controlled trial conducted in primary clinics in Japan. We explored the effects of family physician attire (white coat vs. casual attire) on patient-perceived empathy. Family physicians were allocated to alternate weeks of wearing a white coat or casual attire during consultations. Patients' perceptions of physician empathy were evaluated using the self-rated Japanese Consultation and Relational Empathy (CARE) Measure. We used a linear mixed model to analyze the CARE Measure scores, adjusting for cluster effects of patients nested within doctor, age, and sex of patients, and doctors' sex and years of clinical experience. We used the same method with Bonferroni adjustment to analyze patient sex differences in perceived empathy.

Results: A total of 632 patients of seven family physicians were allocated to white coat-wearing consultations (n = 328), and casual attire-wearing consultations (n = 304). There was no difference in CARE Measure scores between white coat and casual primary care consultations overall (p = 0.162). Subgroup analysis of patient sex showed that CARE Measure scores of male patients were significantly higher in the Casual group than in the White coat group (adjusted p-value = 0.044). There was no difference in female patient scores between White coat and Casual groups (adjusted p-value = 1.000).

Conclusions: This study demonstrated that physician attire (white coat or casual attire) in a primary care setting did not affect patient-perceived relational empathy overall. However, male patients of physicians wearing casual attire reported higher physician empathy. Although empathy cannot be reduced to simple variables such as attire, white coats may have a negative effect on patients, depending on the context. Family physicians should choose their attire carefully.

Trial registration: Japanese University Hospital Medical Information Network (UMIN-ICDR). Clinical Trial identifier number UMIN000037687 (Registered August 14, 2019, https://upload.umin.ac.jp/cgi-open-bin/ctr_e/ctr_view.cgi?recptno=R000042749 ). The study was prospectively registered.

Keywords: CARE Measure; Empathy; Patient–physician relationship; Physician attire; Primary health care; Quality of care.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Clothing
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Japan
  • Male
  • Patient Preference
  • Perception
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Physicians*
  • Primary Health Care
  • Prospective Studies
  • Surveys and Questionnaires

Associated data

  • UMIN-CTR/UMIN000037687