Short vs. Long White Coats: What Do the Different Lengths Mean?

The meaning of short versus long white coats, to the extent that there is one, is generally determined by a given medical institution. However, short coats traditionally mark first-year residents. This is because these professionals, despite having degrees, are still in the learning phase of their career.

The Traditional Meaning of a Short White Coat

Conventionally, a short white coat has indicated that the professional wearing it has less experience than one wearing a long white coat. In many medical institutions, this means first-year residents are told to wear short white coats, usually hip length. 

First year of residency is often distinctly different from later years of residency. Despite having a doctoral degree, these professionals still have a significant amount of learning to do while on the job. Making these professionals visible at a glance can help other professionals at the institution easily recognize who may be less familiar with a procedure and who may need otherwise standard procedures explained to them in more detail. 

The Traditional Meaning of a Long White Coat

Only once a doctor has completed a year of residency do they traditionally wear a long white coat that reaches to the knees. While certainly not a universal policy, this helps doctors with some experience working in the field stand out among newer professionals in a medical setting. 

It has been noted that many patients don’t notice this difference; instead, it is mostly to help medical professionals quickly spot different levels of experience. Speed can be important in a medical setting and there are advantages to quickly determining who has at least a year of experience working as a doctor.

Evolving Traditions

The split between short white coats and long white coats has not been without controversy. Some professionals have noted that the distinction may create an unnecessary hierarchy in institutions where less experienced professionals wear short coats. This could potentially have some disadvantages in situations in which, a doctor marked as less experienced may be less likely to speak up if they think a more experienced doctor is making a mistake. Medicine should be about providing patients with the best care, regardless of who provides that care. Some institutions no longer require less experienced doctors to wear short coats, even if the focus of the first year of residency is still on learning.

Although studies on this subject are limited, there are few disadvantages to shorter sleeves. There is evidence that short or rolled-up sleeves will help reduce transmission of potentially dangerous pathogens.

Alternative Clothing Options for Medical Professionals

Notably, not all medical professionals wear white coats. Those who generally do so when seeing patients often opt to only wear standard business attire when they know they will be performing tasks that aren’t patient-facing such as doing paperwork. 

Pediatricians and psychiatrists have avoided white coats because some of their patients find them threatening. Patient comfort is especially important in these specialties, where performing one’s duties can be difficult if the patient finds their doctor off-putting or intimidating in some way.

Institutions have started changing their medical dress policy to cut out white coats entirely. For example, the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine recommends doctors instead wear sleeveless vests with short-sleeved shirts. 

It is primarily doctors who wear white coats. Other types of medical professionals such as medical assistants typically wear scrubs. Although we’ve discussed this subject in more detail in the past, the truth is that scrub color is often an important way to distinguish among professionals. Medical assistants often wear dark blue scrubs, doctors often wear light blue or light green scrubs and nurses frequently wear burgundy scrubs.

Which Length White Coat Is Appropriate? 

Overall, a long lab coat has traditionally indicated a more experienced medical professional, although this is not universally true. The current meaning of coat length (if any) is usually specific to an institution. It is an interesting topic that merits further research, with advocates both for and against this system presenting a variety of viewpoints. You will need to establish specific guidelines for your medical facility.

Whatever a company’s approach when it comes to white coats, Alsco can help outfit your staff in appropriate uniforms. We offer medical uniform and scrubs rental services, offering your medical staff easy access to clean uniforms, scrubs and more. We also provide gowns for a variety of purposes, including isolation gowns, pediatric gowns and IV gowns.

When you work with us, we simplify the process of ensuring that your staff members look professional. Reach out to us today to learn more about our offerings.


Goggles and White Lab Coats: Students’ Perspectives on Scientists and the Continued Need to Challenge Stereotypes. (January 2021). Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education.

The White Coat: Symbol of Professionalism or Hierarchical Elitism? AAMC.

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