Rich wrote a very interesting article regarding nurses’ uniforms and in many ways I agree with him. When I go to a hospital with family members I really can’t tell who’s a nurse anymore.
My mother was taken to the ER just this week and while we sat and watched the general busy-ness and absolute professionalism of the ER staff, the only people I could really identify were the doctors and they weren’t even wearing a uniform!
In fact we mistakenly asked a cleaner for a pan because she was wearing a uniform that looked more professional than the nurses who were all wearing a mishmash of scrubs and gowns; one nurse had a particularly fun jacket with smiley-faced vegetables all over it. Cute but professional? Hmmmm.
As for scrubs, they might be comfortable but they always look so dowdy and overwashed; the practise of wearing scrubs seems to me to be a case of “life imitating art” or in this case TV! The general unidentifiable jumble of uniforms in the ER detracted from the consummate nursing skill that was all around us.
So I have to suggest that if nurses want to wear a uniform then maybe we should all be wearing the same easily identifiable one – after all that is the whole point of a uniform. Uniforms stand for conformity and consistency. Uniforms are meant to allow people to instantly recognise a cohesive group of important individuals.
If we roll back time as Rich suggests then each level of nurse would be easily recognisable, just as we were when I started nursing in 1975. Up until fairly recently there wasn’t much confusion at all about who was who. Registered nurses wore white shoes and uniforms, student nurses wore caps, blue uniforms and brown shoes, EN’s wore their own colours and so on! Personally I’m not keen on any of that and felt then as I do now that a uniform can be a barrier.
A uniform may identify us but it can also set us apart because uniforms can confer some level of authority and exclusivity that might interfere in the nurse-patient relationship. I believe that type of hierarchical exclusivity was one reason why nurse’s uniforms became the hodgepodge, egalitarian affair they have become. The general assortment of uniforms was meant to place us on a more professional and level field as it were, thus nurses’ uniforms became so casual and diverse that in the 21st century a highly qualified and professional nurse wearing a coat with smiley-faced vegetables seems perfectly okay.
So why do we wear uniforms? Nursing hasn’t always had the professional status we have now – uniforms actually reflect our roots in the lower-class service industries of the 19th century. That’s the reason for the aprons and caps and big buckles that nurses used to be rigged out in up until the 1960’s and 70’s. Florence Nightingale didn’t do us any favours either by placing us firmly in the armed services and subservient to medical consultants; thus the uniform of a maid or handmaiden. Please….let’s not go back there!
I haven’t worn a uniform for 20 years and I haven’t had any problems with being recognised as a nurse – but that’s probably because I work in the community. Hospital-based nursing does need some different consideration due to the numbers of health professionals working there. However, in the community setting, my nursing practise is recognised by my clients through the way I care for them not by what I wear; and that’s how I knew who the nurses were in the ER this week. They were the ones that spoke gently to my mum, helped her respectfully and effectively and explained what the doctor just said.
I observed what I like to term as the “patient-nurse attunement”. This particular nursing quality just doesn’t exist between other health professionals and their patients. Our nurse attunement connects us to the basic needs in a human — that is to build a relationship, no matter how short term. This nurse-patient attunement allows us to gently and respectfully care for our patients physically, emotionally and socially. I think this is nursing’s absolute speciality and that is how we are known.
By all means have a uniform but let’s have one that is consistent — states what we do and doesn’t allow a barrier to come between us and our patients. But above all don’t believe for a minute that the uniform is what defines you as a nurse.
What do you think?