On lab coats and scrubs

When you imagine a doctor’s office or a hospital, what is one of the most prominent visual elements of the whole experience? Here’s a hint: though not technically part of the “built environment” this element is very much part of the “designed environment.” The answer: it’s the uniforms doctors and nurses wear as they care for you. The ubiquitous white lab coats and baggy pastel scrub pants that take people who, walking down the street are just people like you, and set off a visual cue that these people could be wielding needles and frightening diagnoses;  a fact that makes the average patient’s heart race.

It’s a big week for thinking about the design of clinicians uniforms. First, the Atlantic published an article on the psychological and clinical advantages and disadvantages of white lab coats. Germs are a very real, very scary challenge and the white lab coat is an important, but not entirely effective, step to help curb their spread. The Atlantic explains that:

A physician wearing a white coat came to symbolize 20th-century medicine, argues Dr. Mark Hochberg, a professor of surgery at NYU’s Langone Medical Center. Before the late 1800s, doctors usually wore black because it was considered formal, he wrote. The shift to white paralleled progress in science and, eventually, the public’s awakening to germ-fighting habits.

But it admits that white lab coats alone will do nothing to slow their spread unless they are worn appropriately and cleaned frequently. Statistically, lab coats are just as guilty as scrubs, and even freshly laundered business casual clothing, when it comes to spreading germs. Perhaps, then, the dawning of this uniform is more related to mental reassurance and institutional ritual than actual germ prevention. The article also quotes an old article as follows:

Dr. Joseph P. Kriss, who in 1975 wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine:

The physician’s dress should convey to even his most anxious patient a sense of seriousness of purpose that helps to provide reassurance and confidence that his or her complaints will be dealt with competently. True, the white coat is only a symbol of this attitude, but it has also the additional practical virtues of being identifiable, easily laundered, and more easily changed than street clothes if accidentally soiled…. Casual or slovenly dress is likely to convey, rightly or wrongly, casual or inattentive professional handling of their problem….

It’s an interesting, quick, and important read and I recommend clicking over and skimming it.

Meanwhile, students at Pratt have been “designing for a difference” and re-thinking the cut of scrubs for “Haven Hospice Specialty Care Unit, Visiting Nurse Service of New York’s 25-bed in-patient hospice facility in midtown Manhattan.” The Huffington Post wrote about the project yesterday and explained that:

Currently, Haven’s staff wear a combination of street clothes and uniforms from a big corporate supplier — not the right fit, we thought, for a workplace focused on attending to the human spirit in addition to the human body. The winning design, by 20-year-old Hannah Ross, is an organic cotton tunic t-shirt and knit pants, topped by a buttoned and pocketed smock that’s inspired by a lab coat but looks like a stylish jacket. The uniform will be produced and worn by Haven’s nurses and nurses’ aides.

Ross also felt that:

“I knew my design had to be really far removed from a typical hospital uniform,” says Hannah. “The hospice looks like a hotel, a spa, something really calm and comforting, and I wanted to capture that.”

Even the most sensitively designed healthcare spaces tend to be filled with staff wearing this “typical hospital uniform” which creates a stark ripple in the overall holistic design. I think that as more and more attention is paid to creating comfortable, welcoming, and sanitary environments, an overhaul of providers uniforms is a natural next step to further humanizing the whole experience. Here is the design winner, Hannah Ross’s winning look, along with images of the other designs submitted:

(Images via DNA info)



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