Our resident US nurse Sara Morgan wonders why nurse uniforms are the subject of such heated debate in the UK
Thank you to everyone who took the time to comment on my first blog post. It was great to read your feedback, both positive and negative. As for the negative feedback, as a nurse, I can always use a slightly thicker skin, so thanks for helping me to develop my dermal armour. It was fascinating to read about other international perspectives - I think the more we share about our different experiences, the easier it is to identify best practice and adopt it, whether that best practice is here in the UK, in the US, Italy, Canada or anywhere else.
I was interested to see that many people had comments about uniforms and caps - clearly this is a hot topic.
Why are uniforms the subject of such heated debate here? Universal uniforms, colour schemes, and in what settings uniforms should be worn - all are topics guaranteed to stimulate debate. I like uniforms, if for no other reason than it lessens my chance of making a fashion faux pas on a daily basis. And as a rule, they make people look neater and more professional. But here in the medical world of the UK, they also make a hierarchical statement. Depending on your role, your grade, your band, your Trust and sometimes your speciality, there is probably a specific uniform that defines who you are within the organisation.
“Are you my doctor?”
“No, even better, I’m your nurse.”
In my job as a senior nurse, I spend most days in clothes of my own choosing, but every Friday, all of the senior nurses don a uniform and we spread through the halls of the hospital. Because we wear a special colour, everyone knows when a senior nurse is approaching on the Friday rounds. It has been a new and slightly uncomfortable experience for me to be eyed suspiciously when I appear on a ward, just because of the colour I’m wearing.
There are plenty of reasons for people to be suspicious of me - my accent, my belief that the words ‘pants’ and ‘trousers’ are interchangeable among others - but my uniform shouldn’t be one of them. Even colleagues who see me regularly during the rest of the week often fail to recognise me when they first see me in uniform.
Maybe as an American I like to blend in. We are not usually a fashionable people, and using clothing to express oneself is usually left to New York hipsters, musicians, and goth high school students. I relish the opportunity to be judged and underestimated based on appearance, and then shatter whatever bias has been applied to me. For example: friends are always surprised that I am a halfway-decent billiards player. My theory is that they assume I look too clean-cut to have spent enough time in smoky billiards halls to gain any skills with a pool cue. Think of Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent: would her performance have been as much of a shockingly pleasant surprise if she looked like Cheryl Cole?
I’m not the only American who has noticed this phenomenon of outward appearance not always matching stereotypes. A friend of mine who lived in Baltimore once noted that when she walked down the street, it was difficult to distinguish the homeless men from the 22-year old internet millionaires since they seemed to share the same wardrobe of wrinkled, unwashed, mismatched clothes. It all means that we Americans learn very quickly not to judge anyone based on their appearance, especially in the hospital setting, where there is often very little in terms of a dress code to guide what you wear to work.
I understand the argument that having specific uniforms makes it easier for patients and the public to identify who is who. When I worked as a nurse in a busy ER in the US, everyone - doctors, nurses, technicians - wore scrubs. To minimise confusion among the patients, though, we all quickly learned to introduce ourselves to the patients. Every time I walked into a patient’s room for the first time, I recited the same line: “Hi, I’m Sara, I’ll be your nurse today.” And if I forgot to introduce myself and began assessing the patient or taking their history, they would usually remind me by asking “Are you my doctor?” And then I always took the glorious opportunity to reply, “No, even better, I’m your nurse.”
About Sara Morgan
Sara Morgan trained and practiced as a nurse in the United States before coming to work in the UK. She has worked as both a nurse practitioner and as a lead nurse on the Productive Ward initiative.