The traditional image of the white-coated, stethoscope-draped medic may soon be consigned to repeats of Carry on Doctor. First came the news that, in an attempt to stop the spread of MRSA, the NHS is to ban the white coat. From next year, doctors must adopt a more hygienic "bare below the elbows" look. And yesterday it emerged that the stethoscope, too, is under threat - from modern technology. According to researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada, an MP3 recorder pressed against the patient's chest can give clearer results, with the added bonus that results can be replayed, or even stored in the patient's file.
But can ditching these medical accessories really be a good move? The white coat has been firmly on the doctor's back since the late 19th century, when the English surgeon Joseph Lister brought about a revolution in hygiene. In came uniforms - masks, hats and the white coat. The stethoscope is older still - invented in 1816 by the splendidly named René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec, a Frenchman
"Before Lister, doctors would march straight into the ward from postmortems in blood-spattered frock coats," says Dr Carole Reeves of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. "But the white coat has always been a psychological barrier. Doctors have always known it didn't stop a single germ in its tracks, but it gave them status."
The coat and equipment gave doctors mystique. Dr Kildare surely never saw a patient in his shirt-sleeves - and Dr Mark Sloan in Diagnosis: Murder manages to solve murders in his snowy attire. Plus, everyone knows the good guys always wear white.
But times change. Medicine itself is very different from 10 years ago, so why should its practitioners be mummified in archaic costume? The individual Auden described as the "white-coated sage" may soon be the shirt-sleeved chap next door - but George Clooney didn't need a white coat to look reassuring.