Sustainable uniformity for NHS

12 June 2020

Ian Hargreaves, national chair of the Society of Hospital Linen Services and Laundry Managers and with 30 years’ experience working in the NHS, writes:

Many years ago, attempts were made to introduce a national uniform for nurses. One of the many benefits would have been that nurses of different grades would be recognisable by the colour/style of uniform worn, with this being duplicated throughout the NHS. This was never fully implemented, and recent years have seen a wide variety of uniforms/styles/colours introduced. This not only makes recognition by members of the public difficult, but also prevents savings that could be achieved through the procurement service.

Uniformity is also compromised during the summer months, with many staff choosing to wear scrubs as they are more comfortable in hot weather, when compared to the more traditional uniform. More recently the Covid-19 virus has led to even greater numbers choosing scrubs, leading to acute shortages in many Trusts. Is this because scrubs tend to be laundered in facilities using industrial equipment and thereby ensuring disinfection? This certanly reduces the risk of cross infection, as the greater majority of nurses’ uniform is presently washed at home. If scrubs are advantageous in hot weather and in times of pandemics, then why not introduce a similar style uniform throughout the NHS then at least we will be prepared should another similar crisis strike in the future?

The economic choice between single use and reusable is well documented with the advantages and disadvantages of both. Each tends to be weighted dependent upon background, with those written by launderers favouring reusable and those written by manufacturers of single use products favouring their own solution.

I am sure continuity of supply was taken into account when changing to single use product but, as hospitals run short of single use gowns, they now turn their attention to reusable ones. Where can they purchase them from and who will launder them? Had the decision not been made to transfer to single use, these questions would not have arisen. There is capacity within the laundering system, but not the stock.

One entrepreneur in Essex is offering a service to a local hospital, by laundering single use scrub suits. Each day approximately 500 scrubs are collected by the laundry. These are then laundered in a washer extractor using a chemical disinfectant washing process and apparently are still in a fit for use condition.

In February 2020, The Telegraph published an article stating that leading medics were calling for the health service to stop humiliating patients with undignified backless garments. Basically, they wanted to see an end to the use of patient gowns which exposed the wearer’s backside. The style, size and fabric of these gowns is down to the hospital, who may have their own specification. The laundry provider, who may have been requested to provide gowns as part of a rental agreement and not been given any specification as to the construction/ size a gown should be. Or, as in the case of many hospitals what the supplier can provide at the cheapest cost. Hence there are numerous styles/sizes of gowns throughout the NHS, some good, some not so good and some absolutely appalling.

Would it not make sense for the NHS to standardise on a gown that is functional and acceptable to the majority of users and draft a specification which can be provided to those with responsibility for purchasing gowns for use within the NHS? Job done.

If no one addresses this problem now, we will be discussing this subject for many years to come.

Ian Hargreaves

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