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Scrubs 101: A Brief History

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Medical scrubs signify the healthcare workers’ commitment to provide high-quality and safe treatment. It evolved as the sectors realized they need to operate in a sterile environment to avoid cross-contamination and the spread of infection. 

It may not look like it, but the concept of wearing uniforms in the medical field sprung around the 15th century. However, it was not until the 19th century that it becomes iconic when the 1918 flu pandemic highlighted the doctors’ uniform which made them look like a cross between a human and a bird.  

These days, medical and nursing scrubs are the epitome of comfort – short sleeves and drawstring pants made from either pure or blended cotton, polyester, rayon, and spandex.  These perfectly offer the freedom of movement they critically need to perform their duties. 

If you’re curious about what the medical workers wore before the modern scrubs came to be, today’s your lucky day. We’re going to discuss the evolution of medical scrubs and the factors that facilitate such.  

Plague costumes (15th -19th Century)

In ancient times, doctors were identified with their weird “plague costume”. The ensemble consists of ankle-length black coats, gloves, boots, a hat, and a mask that look eerily similar to a bird –complete with beaks that had aromatic substances. The mask also had holes for the nose. 

This set proved useful in the 1918 flu pandemic that, similar to the current COVID-9 pandemic, struck the world population. Doctors used this to prevent their patients from infecting them. The plague costume is the ancient times’ equivalent of today’s highly sought-after personal protective equipment (PPE).  

Long, bulky medical uniforms   

During this time, the medical uniforms transformed to aprons that surgeons wore on top of their work clothes. 

On the other hand, nurses had uniforms similar to those worn by nuns. These looked like long gowns, and the uniforms were heavy and bulky. Because it was made to protect the nurse from infections, it was a nightmare to move around in, and therefore did not offer mobility. This changed shortly before World War I when the nurses’ less restrictive uniforms allowed them to move properly, saving more lives in the process.  

Medical Scrubs Exclusive for Doctors (1940s- 60s) 

In the 1940s, medical workers become more conscious of the need for sanitized rooms to prevent infections from spreading or aggravating. Hence, operating rooms were disinfected and scrubbed – this is the reason the medical uniform is now called “scrubs”. 

In this era, the medical scrubs looked like gowns or drapes that covered the staff while performing a surgical operation. 

Since then, the medical scrubs, which were all white, were used in surgical operations. The color was used to express cleanliness.  

Modern Medical Scrubs (1970s- present)

While medical scrubs were initially intended for surgeons, its use came to spread to the nurses, who often accompany physicians in the operating room.   

About 20 years forward, the old gowns were replaced by the medical scrubs that we know today from sites like keswi. Comfort and efficiency are the two main reasons that gave birth to modern medical scrubs. From gowns, the healthcare workers thought of using shirts and pants as these offered mobilities, allowing them to work better and move faster; ultimately saving more lives.   

Because the medical workers noticed that when used within the white-colored walls of the operating room, the white medical uniform is exceptionally straining to the eyes. Medical staff transitioned to wearing green-hued medical scrubs to work in a contrasting environment. 

Other colors were added to distinguish medical personnel working in different departments. Medical uniforms, these days, have changed to different hues, such as blue-green, pink, and yellow. Apart from shirts and trousers, medical scrubs technically include jackets and gowns. 

Why the Evolution

Apart from comfort, there were other factors that necessitated the evolution of scrubs. There were work-related accidents for healthcare workers that can also be tied to their work outfit. Imagine the trauma to a healthcare worker who gets a patient’s infected blood into his eyes because of poorly designed googles. Here are some more types of accidents healthcare workers can succumb to at work:  

  • Trip, Slip, and Fall Accidents

Generally speaking, about a third of workers’ compensation claims relating to personal injuries that include slips, trips and falls. Medical workers, especially nurses are susceptible to these types of injuries as they’re always up and about.

The consequences of these accidents may be minor or serious, depending on the circumstances. Workplace accidents of this nature may lead to pulled muscles, sprains, strains, and fractures. 

Health facilities should prioritize good housekeeping and quick reaction in these cases. Medical workers should also invest in non-slip shoes to reduce vulnerability.  

Now, imagine the ankle-length black coats from the time of the plague. Those would have made walking quite difficult, making doctors at risk of tripping and falling.     

  • Repetitive Stress and Overuse Injuries

Acute injuries should also be looked at by medical facilities. Chronic pain as a result of repetitive stress and overuse injuries in the workplace contributes to productivity issues and increasing compensation payments for employers. 

A repetitive strain or stress injury (RSI) refers to the long-term damage to muscles, tendons, and nerves due to repetitive motions in the work settings. Musculoskeletal injuries can beset paramedics and nurses who need to rescue and attend to patients during rescue operations. Restrictive clothing would have made it difficult for them to move around, causing injury to themselves.        

Meanwhile, overexertion or overuse injuries, occur when a worker pushes himself too hard beyond his or her capacity. For instance, one becomes highly susceptible to back injuries when lifting heavy objects, including patients, improperly. 

Because of this, investing in proper tools, equipment, and clothing for their staff would have worked for hospitals then.  

  •  Hospital-Acquired Infections 

While disinfection and medical scrubs contribute to protecting healthcare workers from getting infected, improper sterilization of particular medical equipment may still cause staff to contract infections. The SARS-COV 2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is said to have the ability to stay and thrive on specific surfaces from a few hours to a few days. According to the Pan American Health Organization-World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), there had been more than 500,00 health workers affected in the region, with 2,500 reported deaths due to the virus.    

Additionally, reports reveal that 1 in 25 patients in the US become exposed to hospital-acquired infections, causing an estimated 90,000 deaths per year. For health workers who stay in hospitals to care for patients with contagious diseases, this is indeed, an eye-opener.   

Therefore, proper disinfection is of paramount concern to health facilities, especially with the SARS-COV 2 virus.  

Apart from sanitary measures, there’d have been plenty of interventions to the clothing of healthcare workers then. Viruses aren’t new. The plague costume may not have been enough protection from viruses as modern-day PPEs are now. There was always a reason to innovate. 

Final Words

The healthcare workers’ scrubs got its name to describe the area where it was only allowed to be worn decades ago— in a scrubbed or disinfected surgical area. Since then, medical scrubs have come a long way.

Protection and comfort are the two main functions of medical scrubs. However, there is other potentially hazardous stuff in the workplace that medical staff should be wary of, so the quest goes on to keep healthcare workers safe with proper protective clothing as they try to keep everyone healthy and alive in the best way they can.      


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