Why Doctors and Nurses Wear Scrubs

group of happy medical doctors standing in a row

How do you tell a hospital administrator apart from a doctor or nurse? Look at the uniform. Administrators are office workers wearing appropriate attire like dresses or shirts and ties. Doctors and nurses are caregivers who almost always wear scrubs.

Doctors outside of hospital environments may not necessarily wear scrubs, but scrubs are nearly universal for nurses. Scrubs have become the uniform of choice for eliminating the need to establish dress standards for medical personnel.

Having said all that, scrubs were non-existent until the mid-1900s. Considering how old the practice of medicine is, scrubs are a relatively new phenomenon. So why do doctors and nurses wear them? More importantly, where did they come from?

Working in Street Clothes

Up until the early 1800s, both doctors and nurses wore street clothes. Doctors continued wearing street clothes well into the 20th century. As for nurses, they began wearing uniforms during the early 19th century, although the uniforms were not scrubs.

Nursing uniforms began as dresses with separate aprons and hats. The aprons were intended to protect the nurses’ dresses. The uniforms eventually evolved into the all-white uniforms we tend to think of in relation to the nurses of the two world wars.

While nurses were transitioning to uniforms, doctors continued wearing their street clothes with their only protection being a coat worn over shirt and tie. The onset of the American Civil War changed that – at least for American doctors. Field surgeons decided to spare their own clothing by getting rid of their jackets and donning aprons instead.

This practice quickly caught on with surgeons around the country. But interestingly enough, donning the aprons was not intended as a means of protecting patients. It was simply a way of keeping blood and other bodily fluids off the doctor’s clothing.

Medical Uniforms in the 20th Century

Another important influence in medical uniforms occurred in the early 20th century when the Spanish flu stormed across the globe, affecting some 500 million people. The pandemic led the medical community to start thinking of ways to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Surgeons started to wear gauze masks at that time.

Again, the idea was to prevent surgeons from catching diseases – not the other way around. Yet it wasn’t long before surgeons began adopting aseptic clothing that could inhabit the spread of infectious disease to patients. This is where the modern scrubs came from.

The term ‘scrubs’ refers to clothing worn in a clean (or scrubbed) surgical suite. The earliest scrubs were all white, complemented by white walls, bed linens, and nurses’ uniforms. It was eventually decided that the all-white model made working in the OR too difficult. So much white was blinding the surgeons.

So what did they do? They changed their white scrubs to the pale green of the 1960s. In the 1970s, pale green gave way to pale blue and other colors.

Scrubs in the Modern Era

Surgical scrubs became so popular that they eventually caught on with non-surgical medical personnel. Today, scrubs are the preferred uniform for all medical personnel at hospitals. According to Alsco, scrubs now come in all sorts of colors often used to denote function.

Whether they purchase their own scrubs or rent them from a healthcare uniform rental company like Alsco, hospitals may choose one color for doctors, another color for nurses, and another color for support personnel. They sometimes use different colors to denote staff members from different departments. There’s enough variety to go around.

Now you know where scrubs came from and why doctors and nurses wear them. So, what do you think? Are scrubs better than street clothes?

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