Medicine has traditionally been full of hierarchies. Employees’ uniforms make their role easy to identify: one color for radiology techs, another for secretaries, etc. When I was a resident, medical students wore short white coats, residents long blue coats, and attendings long grey coats.
Medicine is also a traditionally male-dominated field, and despite the fact that a small majority of medical students are female, the higher academic and administrative positions are still male-dominated.
Nursing, on the other hand, is traditionally female. Nurses, despite their indispensable role in health care, are traditionally subordinate to doctors, a role made explicit by doctors giving “orders” and nurses following them.
Nurses have taken on a much more complex and diverse set of roles over the last several years. Critical care nurses and nurse anesthetists are some of the most highly trained and highly skilled of medical professionals.
So how come nursing students wear white, see-through scrubs?
Not all nursing schools and hospitals follow this standard, but many do. The uniform I see most often is white scrubs which are usually thin enough to be see-through. These young professionals are required to wear a demeaning uniform under which they often wear another set of clothes (warm and uncomfortable) or specially chosen underclothing that isn’t immediately visible as such. Or they may “choose” to simply allow their underclothing to show through their scrubs.
These uniforms serve no medical or professional purpose. They help reinforce a subservient role rather than emphasizing a nurse’s role as a partner in the health care team.
This isn’t to say all hierarchies are bad. If a nurse doesn’t follow the orders I write in a patient’s chart, that’s a problem. But if a nurse blindly follows my orders instead of feeling comfortable enough to call me if my order looks questionable, the patient will suffer. Nursing student uniforms that demean the wearer set up a situation that is not only bad for the student, but also bad for patients.
So why do we still do this?