Does Healthcare Need a Standard Uniform Policy for All?

It was only a few years ago that the healthcare industry started questioning whether or not workers should be laundering their own scrubs. After a couple of studies showed that home laundering doesn’t necessarily get healthcare uniforms hygienically clean, industry experts began wondering if it was time to set new standards. Fast forward a few years and the coronavirus pandemic adds urgency to the question.

Some hospitals have already begun implementing policies requiring all healthcare workers who normally wear scrubs to not wear them home. They are to either leave them at the hospital for professional laundering or change and carry the scrubs home in a bag.

Other hospitals have not changed their policies thus far. Still others offer somewhat confusing policies, as is the case with United Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. United and its workers recently made the headlines when it was revealed that some nurses are being disciplined for wearing hospital-provided scrubs.

A Question of Supply

Numerous news reports say that some nurses at United Hospital have stopped wearing their own scrubs to work. Instead, they change into hospital-supplied scrubs upon arrival. They say they are doing so to protect themselves and their patients. The hospital sees things differently. They do not want nurses using their scrubs. They say it is a matter of supply.

United Hospital routinely provides doctors and physician assistants with professionally laundered scrubs. Clinicians change into scrubs upon arrival, then leave the scrubs behind at the end of the shift. Soiled scrubs are collected by a linen provider and laundered professionally off-site.

Other sorts of clinical workers, like nurses and technicians, provide their own scrubs. The hospital does provide knee-length gowns and other PPE that workers wear over their scrubs. At the end of the shift however, each of these workers takes his or her scrubs home for laundering.

Professional Laundering is Better

United Hospital makes a good point in that their supply of scrubs is not enough to accommodate their entire clinical staff. They could increase the supply, but that would also mean paying more for linen service. The cost would ultimately be borne by patients via higher bills.

On the other hand, the nurses and technicians have a valid point as well. Professional laundering is better. According to Salt Lake City-based Alsco, professional laundering utilizes a combination of specialized cleaning solutions, high temperature, appropriate washing time, and hygienic finishing and packaging to ensure that hospital scrubs are hygienically clean upon delivery.

Home laundering can get scrubs visibly clean. Unfortunately, residential washing machines rarely get hot enough to kill all of the pathogens found in soiled uniforms. So while home laundered scrubs may look clean, they may not be hygienically clean. This is a big problem in the coronavirus era.

New Industry Standards

Now would be a good time for the healthcare sector to step back and consider whether or not it needs new uniform standards. Getting the CDC and OSHA involved is probably not the right way to go, but the industry could voluntarily establish standards and put the pressure on hospitals and other facilities to adopt them.

What those standards would look like is not for anyone but the industry to say. Experts within the sector – this includes doctors, nurses, etc. – are the most qualified to determine how to ensure patient and staff safety in regard to uniform policies.

Would it be a good idea to standardize professional laundering of all medical scrubs? Perhaps. The one thing we do know right now is that a lack of standardization is causing problems that need solutions.

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