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ADVANCE Perspective: Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine

CSM 2012 Preview: Sharp-Dressed Therapists

Published January 26, 2012 10:00 AM by Lisa Lombardo

Several months ago, the powers that be at ADVANCE (aka, our bosses) decided to allow a more casual dress code for our offices. The decision was met with cheers, as we all envisioned being more comfortable in looser sweaters, well-worn jeans and "practical" shoes. And while we are a bit more at ease while sitting our desks in front of computers, it doesn't escape many of us that we wouldn't necessarily go out to see clients, or even attend a conference as a representative of our publications, dressed as casually as we can be in the office.

Even professions such as physical therapy have to consider dress codes and what they project to others outside the field. Which is perhaps why the discussion "What You Wear to Work: Appropriate Attire for Our Doctoring Profession," will be presented at APTA's Combined Sections Meeting next month on Saturday, February 11, featuring speakers Janice Kuperstein, PT, PhD, MSEd, Susan E. Roush, PT, PhD, Debbie A. Ingram, PT, EdD and Nancy Fell, PT, PhD, NCS.

Physical therapy has become a doctoring profession, so it would seem that when therapists encounter patients in either hospital or clinic settings, their appearance will have a more emphatic effect on how patients will perceive the quality of their care. Literature indicates that patients of other doctoring professions prefer more formal attire, but traditionally, the preferred attire for the physical therapists typically is more casual-khaki pants, Polo shirts or t-shirts, even shorts or sweats in some cases. The course will start dialogue within the profession on how patients and the public view physical therapists, and how that relates to the desired increased credibility of the profession.

PT and PTA attire sometimes even hits home for us at ADVANCE. To cover stories, we go into many settings across the country to interview therapists on their areas of care, and develop photos and stories for the magazine, sometimes for our cover stories. Often, the appearance of a therapist on our cover comes to the attention of readers, who complain the therapist is not dressed professionally, or even that the attire could interfere with proper patient care. Features such as flopping ties (they pick up tons of germs and can be in the way), long hair not pulled back, too-loose or too-tight shirts or inappropriate footwear (flip-flops, anyone?) come under scrutiny-and we are often the targets for even allowing a therapist to represent him or herself on our cover in unacceptable dress.

As in all professions, appearance matters. But when a profession takes a step up in prestige level and educational requirements, it becomes even more of a mirror into how respected that profession is.

How do you prefer to dress for work? Does your workplace mandate a dress code? Do you feel now that the PT profession is a doctoring field, therapists should aim to dress more professionally, or do you feel comfort and ease-of-movement of clothing is still more important when caring for patients?


Back when I was a rehab manager in the Bronx, I wore khakis and a dress shirt to work with loafers. In my office I kept a couple of ties and a blazer. The shirt and slacks allowed me to treat patients comfortably without risking contamination from a tie. The stash of "better clothes" allowed me to attend a meeting with vendors, doctors, administrators and such with a dash more business savvy.

It is about being flexible and appropriate to the task at hand really, isn't it?

Dean Metz February 7, 2012 12:27 PM

I have worked in acute care, acute rehab, OP, pediatrics and now LTC in my nearly 20 years as a PT. I can say that in the OP setting where my patients could generally follow directions for the movements I wanted, that I would feel OK with wearing nicer clothing.

In all other settings, I need to move too much and, as was said, get into bed with my patients at times and even to transfer difficult patients to the toilet. More casual wear is better suited for this.  Our level of education may change, but our practice settings have not changed. Has increased education made us too good to do a toilet transfer, and would you want to do one in a silk top and dry clean only pants?

I agree wholeheartedly with Meg, that what really sets us apart is the information we give to people and the quality of service. If we judge ourselves and others for any more than that, shame on us.

Jennifer, PT February 6, 2012 6:37 PM
Springfield OH

I believe professional attire can vary per setting.  I work at an acute care hospital in OR.  I am one of the primary neuro therapists in our facility, and I am often crawling into my patients' beds to work on sitting balance/bed mobility, coming into contact with many possible bodily fluids in the process, to be frank.  I understand the importance of dressing professionally, but I also need practical clothing when I am assisting my patients in transfers/mobility.  I wear scrub bottoms and various tops.  

I make an extra effort to define the role of a physical therapist to my patients in order to ensure they are aware of the difference between myself and their CNAs or RNs.  I may also add, that many of my patients ask me if I am a doctor because of all of the information I am providing to them during our sessions and ensuring all of their questions are answered.  It is our job to "sell" our profession, and to act as professional as possible at all times; I can still do that in scrubs.  

Meg, , MPT Acute care hospital February 5, 2012 1:27 PM

Dressing professionally shows respect to your clients. That is why I do it. That doesn't mean I can't be comfortable. I am able to do mobilizations and demonstrate exercises easily. There is a big difference between a suit (Suit) and PT professional wear.

To me, scrubs convey that the person has the education of an aide, unless I meet them in the OR.

The snark seems to come from someone who hasn't gotten their DPT yet. They don't know what it takes.

Chris Johnson, outpatient - Dr, Copper Queen Community Hospital February 4, 2012 9:46 PM

I worked in acute care, small general hospital, where the Assistant Director and Director wore professional dresses or suits.  They might donn a labcoat when in the trenches on the floors, but generally they did a few outpatient treatments in addition to their admin. work.   The other patients would ask "Who are the suits?" Our bosses looked SO awkward and uncomfortable when performing manual PT or demonstrating exercises in those clothes.  

Obviously professional dress has to be appropriate to the situation.  Admin vs. patient care and type of care (bedside vs. in gym)is important.

old school , PT February 3, 2012 11:51 PM

I am a part-time contract LPTA and have been working for 20 years in all types of settings.  I prefer scrubs in most settings.  I do believe in out patient that athletic apparel is very comfortable and professional looking.  Khakis and Company logos are, also, good with me.  

Tammy Straub, Home Health - LPTA, Spectrum Home Care February 3, 2012 7:47 PM
Huntsville AL

At the Rehab, we wear scrubs. MD's wear street clothes. They rarely get thrown up on. i prefer leggings, for flexibility, but, must make compromise for propriety. i have had patients ask me if I am an MD, and i am proud to inform them, i am a PT.

Marianna, PT February 3, 2012 6:36 PM
Houston TX

Ok add a D to your title and wear a tie that makes you a doctor

Mike Molyneux February 3, 2012 6:08 PM

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