Maybe you’ve stared into your closet debating which outfit to wear to a routine physical, skin exam, pre-op consult or any other type of doctor’s visit.
Will any doctor, nurse or receptionist judge you for showing up in sweats? Would dressing up be weird? What if you really, really hate the idea of changing into a hospital gown — can you stay in your own clothes?
We talked with several doctors about what to wear to make your next appointment more comfortable and efficient. It turns out sweats are totally okay (even encouraged). As for changing into that paper gown, experts say patients have more power to call the shots than they might realize.
Know when to expect a gown.
Some of the most common situations that might entail changing into a gown come up during dermatology and orthopedic visits, says Dr. Anthony Leazzo, chairman of family practice at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois.
“If we’re doing a full body mole check or something on your back, for the comfort of the patient not having to contort in multiple directions around their clothing, we’ll have them change,” he says.
Women may be asked to change for gynecological exams, including pap smears and breast exams. Genital or rectal exams will likely require disrobing from the waist down. But that doesn’t mean the gown is a foregone conclusion or that you need to wear it.
You’re never required to change.
If changing into a gown makes you feel anxious or uncomfortable, speak up — your provider will accommodate your concerns (and if they don’t, it’s time to see someone else). Don’t be afraid to ask why they want you to change if you’re not sure.
“Any time a patient doesn’t want to be in a gown, they should feel empowered to use their own clothing,” says Dr. Yasaswi Kislovskiy, an ob-gyn in Pennsylvania and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health. “It’s my job to understand the patient’s goals for the visit and to explain what physical exam is needed and why it would help me to provide better clinical care.”
Dr. Melissa Dundas, an adolescent medicine physician in New York and also a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, agrees. “Patients can refuse to change at any time,” she says. As a provider who works with teens, Dundas says she takes extra care to understand the patient’s discomfort, adding that some patients “may have a history of sexual abuse, and changing out of their clothes may cause them to feel exposed and trigger harmful memories.”
If you’re uncomfortable at any point, you can bring it up to the medical assistant who brings you to the exam room, the nurse who takes your vitals or your doctor; or you can give the receptionist a heads up when you check in.
“You can also ask to see the doctor before you change,” says Dr. Jeffrey Quinlan, professor and chair of the department of family medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. “Often, getting to meet your doctor before you are put in a vulnerable condition can alleviate or lessen your worry.”
Dress like you’re about to board a long flight.
In general, patients shouldn’t stress about dressing for the doctor, Kislovskiy says: “‘Dress for the doctor’ implies that you need to do something unique or different for the visit. Rather, it’s our job to ensure the patient’s comfort.”
That said, there are some practical considerations when picking out your ensemble. A good rule of thumb is to dress like you’re about to hop a redeye.
“Wear loose, comfortable-fitting clothing like you’re going to be on an airplane for five hours,” Leazzo says. “Most people aren’t going to want to wear a turtleneck and jeans and thigh-high boots. The same can be true in the doctor’s office.”
If your go-to travel outfit is a comfy pair of sweats, even better, Leazzo says.
“That’s probably ideal, because I can get to just about any part of your body through sweats,” he says. “The patient shouldn’t feel like they need to dress up to come to the doctor.”
Depending on the reason for the visit, women may want to avoid wearing a dress or one-piece outfit that makes it difficult for the provider to perform an abdominal, heart or lung exam without changing into a gown, Quinlan says.
“Wearing a sports bra can help maintain modesty while still allowing your doctor access to perform the necessary exams,” Quinlan adds.
If you’re going to the ob-gyn, certain pieces can also make it easier for you to stay in your own clothing if that’s your preference.
“If you want a breast exam, a shirt that opens in the front, like a button-up or a wrap-front that can be untied, can be helpful,” Kislovskiy says. “If you think you’ll need a pelvic exam, a skirt or dress that can be lifted above the waist will also work well.”
Make it easy to address your specific concern.
If you’re heading to the doctor for an issue with a certain body part, think about how to help the provider access that area in a way that keeps you comfortable.
“If you’re coming in for a knee issue, skintight leggings or jeans wouldn’t be the best,” Leazzo says. “We might ask you to change so we can look at the knee and see if the joints are swollen.”
Same goes for heart or lung issues — your provider will probably “need to have access to the skin overlying that body part,” Quinlan says.
Remember to account for medical equipment, too: “If you have a port, ostomy, or drain that your physician or their staff will need to access, consider wearing clothing that makes this easier for both of you,” Quinlan says, such as a port access hoodie for cancer patients at a chemo appointment.
Ask for a same-sex chaperone.
For some patients, it’s uncomfortable to receive a physical exam from a provider of the opposite sex.
“Patients always have the right to a stand-by or same-sex observer in the room for exams when you are in a gown, or if your physician is examining your breasts or genitals,” Quinlan says.
In some offices, this practice is standard: “It’s always beneficial to have a third party in there to say, ‘Hey, this is very clinical, there’s nothing else going on,’” Leazzo says.
If you aren’t offered a same-sex observer, you can still request a chaperone or ask if there’s a way to avoid changing for an exam altogether.
“If you’re uncomfortable, we won’t be offended in the least if you say, ‘Hey, is there a way we can get around having to change?’” Leazzo says. “There’s plenty of time for us to discuss it. You should never feel forced when you come to the doctor.”
Work with your provider to find a solution that makes you feel comfortable.
Ultimately, “a patient always has the right to refuse to change into a gown,” Quinlan says. “However, this may limit the doctor’s ability to examine you.”
But in many cases, your doctor can provide workarounds to help make you more comfortable, even if some disrobing is still inevitable.
“It would be challenging to deliver a baby through a pair of pants,” Kislovskiy says. “But many patients wear their own comfortable dresses or sleep shirts to labor and delivery, and I’ve had other individuals prefer to remain dressed in their own clothing for routine gynecological visits.”