May 16

Registered Nurses: There goes one now!

My Graduation Photo: FHH 1981

What a week! You know, I am on a short hiatus from work at the moment, and I could get used to this! I used this gift of time to plan little road trips to see nurses all over south, central, and some northern parts of Alberta to celebrate Nurses’ Week. I was able to get to nursing events in Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Calgary, Red Deer and Grande Prairie…and honestly, my sides still hurt from laughing. You know something? Nurses really do know how to have fun! One more thing: to all you fellow 1981 grads out there–congratulations on 30 years in this wonderful profession!

Seriously though, one of the things that struck me was how nurses at each event talked about how essential it was for nurses to be visible in their places of work. For many of them, their Nurses’ Week celebrations entailed donning the white uniform and cap for work. It was delightful to see the pride with which these nurses “wore their whites”, and striking to see the reaction from clients at events in facilities. Many talked about how nice it was to “see” their registered nurses looking so professional, and how much easier it was for visitors and family to be able to pick out the registered nurses from the other staff. It is not always easy to spot a pin or a nametag from a distance, but a white uniform really stands out. You know, I think there’s something in this. Now, I have had this conversation with other nurses, and I think it’s safe to say that there are a couple of “camps”: those who reject the virginal, religious symbolism of the white uniform and are pleased we have discarded this outdated tradition, and those who think that a clean white uniform looks professional, and serves as a clear identifier of the RN.  (And OK, there is another camp, but almost everyone is in it: the nursing cap as a bacteria-infested, scalp-destroying accessory that was ALWAYS getting in the way!) So, minus the broad agreement on ditching the head gear, are the other two camps really mutually exclusive? Is there a common ground in the notion of a consistent, identifiable color for RN’s in work environments where uniforms are worn? Now, I’ll admit I’m a little biased towards the white camp (maybe because of my age and traditions), but what about another color? Are we pleased with the “green scrubs” look? (Another bias alert: I think that although scrubs may be a practical choice, they too often just look sloppy to me). I know, it sounds like such a trivial thing when we are dealing with life and death, insane workloads, health system transformation—and I know that many nurses in many settings do not wear uniforms…but many of us do. Is there any merit in a consistent, publicly identifiable color that signifies: there goes an RN?  I wonder…


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  1. Jaime

    Great piece Shan!

    In only one year of clinical experience, I have already seen evidence of the positive reactions that residents have when registered nursing instructors wear white uniforms! They would also comment on how nice it was to be able to tell who to turn to!

    1. sue labuhn

      First of all, I love the photo of you in your graduation uniform, and remember that day as if it were yesterday 🙂

      As you know, I’m not an RN, but recently spent a considerable amount of time in the local emergency room and palliative care unit with an ill family member. I can’t stress enough, how comforting it was when a nurse entered the room. Their professionalism and knowledge set them apart from all others! However, as a patient or family member, it was often very difficult to discern between a Lab Tech.,PCA, NA, LPN, and an RN. You all look the same from a distance in medical scrubs.

      I think that a uniform defines a profession, and clothing absolutely defines social roles, as in the case of a police uniform, or judicial robes. It helps us recognize experts in the field–people we can turn to in a time of need. I like the idea of an RN wearing a white uniform, in some form. It sets you apart, and speaking as a potential patient, I’d rest easier knowing you were in the room with me. I know my loved one did.

  2. Dave Lapins

    I certainly concur with Sue (both in her comment on the photo and RN uniforms). Having recently been a patient in the Foothills Hospital I must say the dress code for nursing care staff has gone to the opposite extreme. The uniform for a male graduate nurse that was attending to me consisted of a black T-shirt and sweat pants. Had it not been for the name tag I would have thought someone off the street was attending to me.
    All white uniforms for RN’s is a good idea.

    1. Shannon

      Thank you for the comment Dave–and I trust you are feeling better! You and Sue have perspectives that bring a powerful immediacy to this discussion–maybe it’s NOT such a small thing!

  3. Jerry Macdonald

    The argument about uniform colours goes back decades (my own grad year was 1985), but really is it the uniform that defines the person providing the care, or the quality of care provided? To require a set uniform colour for RNs working in facility settings would also require colour coding for other professions, and the colour scheme for each would likely be a mystery for patients and families. This was one issue I recall from the “old days” of the caps, since all kinds of providers wore caps when I was a student in Halifax, not all of them nurses (I recall female DI techs wearing caps); the caps were coded by shape and band colour according to the discipline of the wearer and the tradition of the school from which they graduated.

    Uniform colours also bring in the matter of gender equity; plain white uniforms for men are positively ugly (I used to wear the). Finally, it would have collective agreement implications; the unions would cry foul unless employers were prepared to supply the uniforms (as they do for some support staff and for personnel working in the OR).

    In my opinion, the solution should be simple. Every person providing bedside care in a hospital or continuing care facility should introduce him/herself by name and profession. “Good Morning, Mr. Smith, my name is Jerry and I am a Registered Nurse; I will be looking after you today” works much better, IMHO, than some obscure colour code scheme. As for the black shirt & sweats, I agree that is unprofessional. However, instead of an inflexible dress code, I would submit that professional appearance should be defined on a case by case basis, somewhat like this: “I don’t know how to define it precisely, but I know it when I see it”. It will also depend on the setting and the patient population; for example, didn’t I just recently see a report on a study of uniform designs in pediatric units that supported the “cute” motif in that setting? I think I saw it in Nursing 2011.

    1. Shannon

      Hmmm…thoughtful response Jerry, thank you. I have some thoughts as I read your response– and you are so right about the debate being decades long! A few musings: I don’t think we are talking about “defining the person” with a color, do you? I think we are talking about professional image, and visual identification–full stop. Identifying yourself as an RN verbally, yes, absolutely!! (And…I believe one should include both first and last names in that introduction, and on the name tag…but that’s a topic for another post, or maybe even a rant!) But what about the folks in the environment who aren’t personally introduced to you? What about folks in the environment who have poor vision, and can’t actually see your nametag? And one more thing: gender equity? Really? Tell me more. When did a specific color (other than pink or blue maybe) introduce inequity in gender? I don’t look good in green, but I don’t think it’s a gender inequity issue, do you? And finally…maybe the people to ask this question of are our publics (those in our care). If this is something that those we serve think might be a good idea, I am pretty sure we can navigate any of the profession-centric issues that may arise, including any that might arise out of our unionized environments, etc, don’t you? I would like to hear from others on this, and although I don’t really expect us to come to a “final word” on this… I do think we might want to talk about this in our workplaces, with our colleagues, and more importantly, with those we serve. Just sayin…

  4. Erin Kanegawa

    How ironic to find this piece when searching for information for my presentation… in your class… on this particular topic… not knowing of this article’s existence previously! 🙂 This blog is inspiring, so glad I came across it!

    1. Shannon

      I am so glad that you have found something useful Erin, thanks for letting me know! And for the record, you inspire me right back!

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