Clothes make the nurse

Image: Wendy Hope | Stockbyte | Getty Images

Clothes make the nurse. The days of all-white uniforms are long past, but patients and the public still judge us, in part, by what we wear. So while Parts I through III of The Perils of Beauty encouraged you to consider the practicality of your work wardrobe, Dr. Brady and Nurse Rebekah discuss patient perception and professional image in part IV.

Nurse Rebekah: Imagine if aliens landed in a hospital and were trying to figure out what our clothing meant. It might seem as if the people wearing the pajamas had all the power and did all the work, while the people wearing suits didn’t do much but stare at some weird light box on a table, intermittently picking up a strange white cylindrical object with a green pattern on it and brown liquid. It would be interesting to see what the aliens might say about our outfits.

But we can forgo the fantasies of alien visitors and consider what our patients think when they come to the hospital. Remember, a hospital is alien territory to them! So what do they think about our outfits, hand-washing habits and presentation? If we keep our appearances professional, neat and stylish, we’re sure to project the competence that we possess.

Dr. Brady: Absolutely! Patients pay attention to these things, especially when they don’t have visitors to occupy them. While we’re busily running around trying to keep up with all of our work, our patients are bored, wondering when their test results will be back, when we’ll return and when they can leave or eat (or both!). They often have nothing better to do than watch us and what we do right or wrong. They notice how we dress.

Even more potentially embarrassing, they notice what we say. Don’t think they aren’t listening. They are, but that’s a whole other topic.

You heard it in nursing school and you’ve heard it again here: Dress neatly and professionally. Tie your hair back. Trim your nails. Wash your hands. Fashion is fleeting, but professional behavior and attire will always make a good impression.

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Brady Pregerson, MD

Brady Pregerson, MD, a returned Peace Corps volunteer and winner of the 1995 Wise Preventive Medicine Scholarship, completed his medical school at the University of California, San Diego, and his residency at Los Angeles County General Hospital. He has authored three medical pocket books for nurses and doctors, as well as the educational web sites and Pregerson currently works as an emergency physician in Southern California. He writes, "Although the ED environment may be quite different from working on the hospital floor or in an office setting, I am hopeful that you can take these tips and apply them to your own specific work situation." You can buy his books on lessons from the ER, including Don't Try This At Home: Lessons from the Emergency Department and Think Twice: More Lessons from the ER, at

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6 Responses to Clothes make the nurse

  1. Nicole, RN

    Great series- summed up best by the last paragraph. The bottom line is that no matter if we banned white lab coats for MDs, made nurses wear suits, or did something else ridiculous to the hospital attire, as long as us as medical personnel acted in a respectful manner and in a well put-together professional manner, a good impression would be made to the patients and the respect will be reciprocated. I kind of lost Nurse Rebekah in her alien analogy, but great series nonetheless :)

  2. This is a great series. I constantly talk to my students about the value of professional behavior, including appearance. We discuss when the Sponge-Bob-Squarepants scrubs are appropriate and when they are inappropriate. However, I fight an uphill battle when they go to the clinical site and see nurses wearing Betty Boop scrubs with their hair down and an excess amount of jewelry. I almost wish we’d go back to whites!

  3. Sylvia

    I wear whites including a white skirt and white nylons …I receive many compliments from my patients saying I look so professional and I actually look like a nurse…sometimes they say they cannot tell the difference between the housekeepers and the medical staff…

  4. Susan Kocinski

    I think the problem is that the scrubs industry has crossed the fashion line. Patients, especially the elderly, LOVE the bright and cheerful scrub patterns and beautiful colors. However, some patterns actually are so busy that they could make patients dizzy. Some patterns are just downright inappropriate. (Who wants a nurse wearing a scrub top with skulls and crossbones on it). While the zebra and leopard pattern shoes are adorable, I am not sure they are appropriate for the hospital industry. So, I understand why some people are requiring solids only. However, I have noticed that when staff are required to wear solids or assigned colors, they take less pride in their appearance and look sloppy. Administrators are wrong in thinking that this will help patients know what position the person in “green” works. Patients have a lot more on their minds other than, “Blue means nurse, green means HUC, grey means housekeeper, etc.” If the designers and buyers keep their products respectful and appropriate, I believe everyone would be happy.

  5. Dianna

    Since crossing over to wound care and a short white jacket I have noticed more respect from both patients and doctors. Seems wrong that a doctor respects me more as a white coat than when I do my
    weekly rotation as a bedside nurse.

  6. We need to express our personalities as well. While some patterns can be, lets say distracting, most scrub patterns are fairly conservative.