Apr 03

Uniforms, Uniformity, And Conformity In Healthcare

While at a business lunch this past Friday, I couldn’t help but notice that the waiters and waitresses at the fancy restaurant were wearing uniforms almost identical to those I wore as a cook at Magic Mountain during the summer of 1976. A top with vertical earth tone stripes over gray pants.

What uniforms are worn by your staff, employees or colleagues? Green scrubs? Dark pinstripe suits? Light khaki pants, blue shirts, and white lab coats?

Uniforms send a message to others. Witness the quintessential example: the police officer. Even security guards and TSA workers don faux police uniforms with iron-on badges to manipulate people into a high degree of compliance.

But a uniform can create tainted uniformity among its wearers, uniformity of thinking and uniformity of action.

Uniformity is a form of compliance imposed on the uniform wearer, too. “You’ll wear this uniform because we told you to.” Or, even more tribal, “We wear this uniform because that’s what we wear.”

But uniforms mask individuality and comparison. Just as no two police officers are alike, so too, none of the physicians in your group are identical. Yet, in healthcare, uniforms play no small role in that fact that many refer to their wearers as “providers,” and that some claim that providers can easily be replaced, presumably by someone else in scrubs or in khakis, blue shirt, and a lab coat.

How then, do you achieve the balance between the message sent to third parties, which itself must be modulated, and the message sent to your staff?

I don’t have the answer. I have the question, which I’ve now gifted to you.

Certainly, in the context of last Friday’s restaurant, the uniform played a role in creating an atmosphere supporting the price point. In the glassed-in kitchen at Magic Mountain, it created the impression that an 18 year-old knew something about food handling safety. Those are not too different from the sorts of messages sent by scrubs or lab coats or blue pinstripe suits.

Yet there’s a danger in uniformity in areas requiring creativity or higher-order decision-making. “We always do it this way,” or “That’s not my role,” or “Stop, doctor, that’s the wrong leg!”

The chef at that restaurant was wearing a chef-like jacket over jeans and black cowboy boots. He’d never signal that he’s just like anyone else.

Comment or contact me if you’d like to discuss this post.

Mark F. Weiss



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