Healthcare News & Insights

Dress codes for nurses: Tool to boost professionalism

Establishing a dress code for nurses may not be top priority for your hospital. But it can go a long way toward creating a sense of professionalism, and patients also appreciate it because it’s easier to identify staff. For these reasons, one big name health system decided to create a standard dress code for its nurses. 

GettyImages-151812052At the beginning of this year, Pennsylvania’s Geisinger Medical Center started requiring all registered nurses to wear a uniform to work.

A research team from Geisinger chronicled its efforts toward standardizing staff members’ clothing in The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing.

Background research

The process first began in 2014. Nurse leaders started investigating patients’ claims that it was difficult to identify nurses based on their appearance alone. At the time, there was no standard dress code for any type of nurses at the hospital, whether they were RNs, licensed practical nurses (LPNs) or nursing assistants (NAs).

Some patients indicated that, rather than look as if they were ready to care for patients, some nursing staff looked like they were “ready for the gym” or “at the club.” Outfits ranged from T-shirts and fleece jackets to hooded sweatshirts and leggings.

Because there was no consistency, nurse leaders worried staff weren’t projecting a professional image to patients. And even if a nurse was dressed as expected, it was hard to distinguish whether the person was an RN, LPN or NA.

So a multi-year process began where nursing leaders got input from both nursing staff and patients about the changes they’d like to see with nurses’ attire and what kinds of outfits looked the most professional in a hospital environment.

After surveying patients, which included showing them photographs of various types of attire, the hospital found that most patients felt nurses looked professional when they all wore the same uniform, and the uniform that nearly all participants thought was the most professional was solid navy scrubs.

Patients surveyed at Geisinger weren’t fans of nursing staff wearing T-shirts with sayings and pictures on them. They also didn’t find layered tops professional – or colorful tie-dye T-shirts with scrub pants. Patients even had mixed reviews about holiday-themed scrubs, with a slight majority saying they weren’t professional nursing attire.

New dress code & uniform

With this input, along with feedback from nursing staff, Geisinger started updating its dress code policy.

Across all of the health system’s facilities, nursing leaders found 70 dress codes, which explained the significant variations among different types of nurses. To add to the confusion, not only were nurses dressed differently, but staff in other departments had different standards as well.

So Geisinger created a dress code policy that would apply to all departments. It covered general appearance for all staff, including jewelry and tattoos (which could be exposed as long as they weren’t inappropriate). And it put more specific guidance in place for what RNs should wear.

Now, RNs at Geisinger must wear gray and white scrubs embroidered with the hospital’s logo and the words “Registered Nurse.” Nurses can optionally have their certification initials embroidered on the left sleeve.

The health system plans to issue more guidance about whether they’ll allow more wiggle room for RNs in specific specialties – particularly pediatrics and maternal health – or for certain holiday-themed attire.

Geisinger is currently monitoring its changes to the RN dress code, and it plans to talk with nurses to see how the uniforms have impacted their work life. It’s hoping uniforms will foster a stronger sense of professionalism in nurses that’ll translate into better care for patients.

Perception is reality

Past research has shown that dress codes make a difference with patients’ perception of other types of providers. Patients feel more satisfied with the care they receive from doctors if they wear white coats during rounds, rather than just scrubs or other clothing. They also see white coats as more professional.

While strict dress codes have gone by the wayside at many facilities, it could be time to hold staff to more consistent standards, especially as patients’ perceptions start playing a bigger role in reimbursement through patient satisfaction surveys.

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