Technology and fashion make for an interesting question: what is the future of lab coats?

White lab coats have been worn since the 1800s, and since then have become symbols for medical professionals and general scientific rigor. Lab coats today are an indispensable part of hospital and laboratory attire providing protection to the wearer and, in healthcare settings, a great deal of comfort to patients as well.

Spa and skin care providers have also begun to adopt the white coat in order to protect themselves from potentially harmful chemicals in their facilities as well as to take on the role of a higher scientific discipline in their respective fields.

The white lab coat has not gone uncontested, however. In fact, many hospitals and many schools are moving away from using lab coats altogether.

The movement away from coats?

One big factor in this movement is the concept of “lab coat hypertension.” Essentially, when a patient sees their doctor walk in wearing a lab coat, some might get nervous about whatever procedure they’re about to undergo, or whatever results they might be about to receive, etc. This sudden anxiety triggers a spike in blood pressure, which can be worrisome.

The counterargument, of course, is that seeing a doctor at all if the patient is nervous about a visit will provide hypertension regardless.

While “lab coat hypertension” is a real thing, so is patient confidence. A study by Christopher M Petrilli et al from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor finds that the vast majority of patients prefer that their healthcare providers wear a white lab coat. While seeing the white lab coat might cause a spike of anxiety for some, the majority of patients feel better in the long run when seeing the coat, as its notoriety helps build more confidence towards the doctor and for the procedure or results in general.

Another reason the use of lab coats has been challenged comes from the idea that lab coats are a great place to store germs and bacteria, potentially infecting both wearer and other patients. At first glance, this worry makes sense: lab coats in a hospital are constantly exposed to germs, and logically all the germs associated with checkups and consultation could find their way onto the fabric.

While this is technically true, it isn’t coat-exclusive. This may be less of a lab coat problem and more of a doctor hygiene problem—sure, doctors wash their hands vigorously and sterilize their equipment, but how many of them wash their ties during the day?

Another study found that the majority of doctors have not once washed their neckties, which is something you’ve likely never thought would be a problem but which merits a major shift in doctors’ thinking. Germs and bacteria can latch onto anything—lab coats, dress shirts, neckties, scarves, pants, scrubs—and, after any of these items leave the hospital, they should be washed thoroughly. Taking lab coats away because germs latch onto them might solve the problem that lab coats expose patients and other individuals to germs unnecessarily, but it will not solve the problem that any other article of clothing will also have this consequence.

This argument also makes a great case for easy-to-maintain lab coats.

Many facilities are moving away from requiring or using lab coats at all for reasons that seem viable at first, even though most are misleading. We hope they’re passing fads, because the logic doesn’t hold.

Does this mean that the white lab coat will go away in the future?

Maybe, but probably not. While many lab coat designs on the market today are more garments of pride than necessary protective lab and healthcare wear, the need to use quality protection from a well-designed and well-manufactured lab coat is still very real, and what we can expect to see in the future of lab coats will undoubtedly make them and even more indispensable and necessary parts of laboratory and healthcare work attire.

What to expect in the future of lab coats

The white lab coat as we know it today will probably cease to exist as a functional and necessary part of protective attire at some point. In its place will be a smarter, more advanced, and far more useful coat that takes advantage of modern and future tech to levels that would’ve once been considered science fiction.

Among the updates we can expect to see from lab and hospital wear, perhaps the biggest two are tech-friendly designs and smart fabric.

Tech-friendly designs

Some clothing on the market today is already steering toward tech-friendly, and the idea has been around for some time.

Years ago, we started to see jackets and bags with small apertures meant to feed headphone wires through in order to listen to music while keeping your device stored in your bag or pocket. Some jackets even incorporated built-in earbuds in the form of hood fasteners. Other examples include touch-screen capable gloves and screen-cleaning sleeves.

While lab coats may not be adapted to be headphone friendly in the immediate future, the same principle can be taken to maximize the efficiency of other tech in labs and hospitals. The world is moving away from paper products—examination rooms and scientific facilities included—and many companies are ditching their binders, notebooks and paper files for computers and tablets, which are greener and even cheaper in the long run. Hospitals and laboratories are no different, and tablets among other devices are sure to become industry standards even more so than they are now.

Appropriately, lab coats will likely change to ensure these devices can be stored nearby and used at all times. One possible adaptation is a tablet-sized pocket with a snug fit, ensuring the tablet is readily accessible at all times, but never loose or inconvenient. Seeing as many lab coats on the market today that offer no pockets at all (rather ,slits to access trouser pockets underneath), this change could also normalize pockets in general on all lab coats, which is especially important since the access slits are not useful for most female scientists sporting generally pocket-less clothing underneath.

Smart fabric

From color and pattern-changing clothing to close-kept health monitoring devices, there are loads of technological advancement in fabric that may seem like science fiction now but are in fact already existing tech that’s only a short time away from commercial release.

These innovations can have literally lifesaving applications in the scientific community, and will without a doubt be incorporated into what will come to be known as the lab coat of the future.

Your own wearable generator

Electricity-generating technology has been around for a while and we’ve seen it anywhere from solar panels to rent-a-bike systems. Taking this technology that can turn static, kinetic and solar energy into usable electricity, your lab coat could very well become your wearable, portable charger. Following with the tablet example from before, this means that keeping your tablet charged throughout the day and ready to be used in any situation could be as simple as putting it in your pocket.

Of course, this technology isn’t useful only for tablets—any wearable technology could greatly benefit. Electric stethoscopes that offer amplified sound and reduced ambient noise can be extremely useful in a clinic or hospital setting, but only if they’ve got a charge. The ability to keep them charged by simply wearing them over your shoulders on top of a powered lab coat could make running out of a juice a worry of the past.

The ID that can't be lost

All of us have stayed in a hotel where we unlock rooms with the magnetic keycards. Few of us, however, have likely thought about just how useful this technology could be in our everyday lives.

In hospitals and laboratories alike, there are always areas that only authorized personnel have the authority to enter. Some of these zones have guards, some are protected by locks, and others simply by signs. In the case of a key-only entrance (electronic or not), what’s to stop anybody that happened to get ahold of a misplaced key from getting in?

When security relies on the ability for humans to not misplace access keys, the “authorized personnel only” sign can only do so much.

Minimizing this risk today comes in the form of the same hotel key-card technology, but in the future could be incorporated into the lab coat itself. Rather than having to get out a droppable, misplaceable key every time you need to cross into authorized-only territory, a simple wave of the wrist could be enough to let you through—but nobody else. Apart from being quicker, more convenient and more sanitary, the incorporated key-in-sleeve approach is simply more secure. You might misplace your wallet or your lanyard, but it would be tough to misplace the clothing on your back.

Sensors to measure health

Being in good health is important for any job, but when working with hazardous chemicals or germophobic patients, sneezes from a cold are a no-go, and an unnoticed physical injury in your knee or ankle can turn into something more serious than it needs to be.

Smart lab coats that have sensors built into the fabric can help monitor your own state of well-being, from a slight cold to oncoming injuries, thus making sure you can stay as healthy as possible and keep providing the services you wear your lab coat to do in the first place!

A physical injury, especially in the legs, will show up in this wearable tech through altered movement patterns like an unusual limp or a different walking pace. Smart phones and smart watches can already tell when we’re walking, running, sitting, or even sleeping based solely on their accelerometers. A lab coat full of sensors will be able to tell us so much more. With enough time, smart coats will be able to let us know about a developing injury we haven’t yet even noticed so that we can treat it before it ever becomes a problem.

As far as sickness goes, these sensors can obviously help as well. Sickness comes with symptoms, often related to body temperature, coughing, sneezing, perspiration and many other signs that can be detected with the appropriate dedicated technology. This way, again, the issue can be acknowledged before it becomes a problem and can be treated and dealt with to make it rob little time as possible from your productivity.

“Safety chameleon”

As we mentioned before, color-changing fabric is a technology that exists today and is only a few short years from completely revolutionizing the fashion industry. Not only will “it goes with everything” ring truer than ever before, but you will be able to hide stains, change moods, and even match your outfit to the lighting of the day as it progresses, all without ever needing a wardrobe change.

While this seems like a mainly aesthetic development, and admittedly it is, there are significant applications to health and lab safety attire that have and will be made as this technology grows.

Imagine your lab coat lighting up from white to red as soon as you spill some hazardous material on it, or as soon as it’s come in contact with a dangerous pathogen, thereby alerting you that you’ve encountered something that needs your attention immediately. This might seem like it’s been pulled straight out of a Star Trek episode, but it’s actually a far cry from science fiction because it actually exists today.

A lab coat that changes colors when it comes in contact with dangerous pathogens such as the Zika or Ebola viruses is precisely the concept that recently won the Johnson and Johnson’s innovation challenge, a development that is nothing short of lifesaving.

Indispensable, timeless protection

Lab coats have always been important for keeping their wearers safe, no matter the context in which they’re worn. Anti-microbial fibers, ailment-sensing fabric, and altogether lifesaving technology is bound to keep the lab coat a quintessential symbol of scientific rigor, and a necessary piece of protection that will become more useful than ever before.