Down with the Gown: Revealing Hospital Gown Gets a Revamp

Researchers at North Carolina State University are working to solve a nearly century-old problem – what to do with those skimpy, derriere-exposing hospital gowns.

They are filmy, uncomfortable – and if you happen to catch a draft, you’re in trouble.

“The fact is, when patients are in a hospital they are already feeling vulnerable – the last thing they need to deal with is a garment that intensifies that feeling by leaving them uncovered and overexposed,” says Dr. Traci Lamar, associate professor of textile and apparel technology and management at NC State.

In November 2006, Lamar and her team in the College of Textiles received a $236,110 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio to design a patient garment that would allow patients to feel more dignified, while still providing easy access to medical personnel.

NC State’s research suggests that patients and caregivers alike hate the current gown. If a more dignified, respectful patient garment can be designed and taken up widely in the patient-care market, this seemingly subtle but innovative change may have far-reaching effects on patient engagement and the quality and safety of patient care.

“This garment almost needs to be all things to all people,” Lamar says. “We obviously want patients to feel comfortable during their hospital stay, but doctors and nurses still need to have easy access to check a patient’s heart rate, administer an IV or monitor blood pressure.”

Lamar’s team recently finished the first phase of the study in which they conducted patient and caregiver surveys, held focus groups with nurses and spoke with various medical personnel and stakeholders in the supply network about their needs in a gown.

Would they prefer something with pants? Do they have color preferences? Does wearing the traditional gown influence how patients feel and behave in the hospital environment? These are among the hundreds of questions Lamar and her colleagues asked.

“We learned so much from these responses,” Lamar says. “One major thing we took away from interviews with medical personnel is that in order for this redesigned garment to be a success, it first has to be feasible for a hospital to implement it.”

A handful of hospitals across the country have tried to implement a higher quality gown – but the challenges such as high cost and demands of required maintenance have kept them from widespread adoption.

“Within the College of Textiles, we have expertise in product areas from fiber to finished product – as well as sourcing, product development and marketing,” Lamar says. “This, combined with an in-depth understanding of the requirements for a successful patient garment, makes us feel confident that we will be able to design a patient garment that is dignified, affordable and accessible.”

Several concept samples of the gown were displayed at a reception prior to NC State’s annual “Art to Wear” fashion show. The concept gowns not only illustrated potential features of innovative patient garments, they were constructed of fabrics that had been printed or knitted within the college. All samples were derived from original textile designs by Kelly Roth, a College of Textiles graduate student. The fabrics were used to illustrate NC State’s capabilities from fabrication to end product design, and for the aesthetic value they brought to each sample.

“The textile design work we do in the College of Textiles is far ranging and includes everything for designing new firefighter turnout suits with thermal, chemical and biological protection; to hospital scrubs that protect doctors and nurses; to concept designs for the first landing on Mars,” says A. Blanton Godfrey, dean of the College of Textiles. “Medical textiles are a fast growing area of research and student work including new sutures, stents, vascular graphs, arteries and tissue engineering.”

Lamar says with the new technologies available, NC State could potentially design hospital garments that provide added value such as antimicrobial properties – to prevent spread or growth of viruses – or built-in sensors to monitor blood pressure.

The research phase of this effort, covered by the current grant, has just ended. The project has been successful to date, giving the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation a more comprehensive understanding of the market opportunity and requirements to introduce effective, affordable, feasible new patient garment designs. The next phase – when actual prototypes will be designed, developed and evaluated – has not been initiated at this point.

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