The flimsy hospital gown that ties in the back and leaves backs and buttocks mostly bare has long been a source of jokes, as well as of complaints by patients.
Now, some say it’s time the unpopular garment that hasn’t been updated in 40 years got a modern-day makeover.
MedStar Health is trying out what it hopes is a more “dignified” hospital gown: a newly designed one that doesn’t open when a patient gets out of a bed and allows for some physical modesty. A gown where a patient doesn’t have to disrobe to get a basic medical exam. The nonprofit health care system began rolling out the new garments at its MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney last week. If all goes well, it will also start using the gowns at its other nine hospitals.
“It is really one of the areas we haven’t done a lot of innovating around,” said the hospital’s president Thomas J. “T.J.” Senker. “If you think about health care and the patient experience, we have done so much with facilities and have really worked to improve the food. But this was an opportunity to think about the dignity of the patient.”
The gown was created by Care+Wear, a New York-based operation which dubs itself an innovative “healthwear” company. The company worked with clothing designers studying at the Parsons School of Design, also in New York.
They came up with a gown designed like a robe or a wrap dress that ties in the front so that a patient’s rear end is not visible. The ties are strategically placed so the gown can be partially opened to keep part of the body covered if a doctor needs to do an examination.
The new gown allows doctors access to patients’ backs. Traditional hospital gowns tied in the back because of the limitations faced by bedridden patients: It was easier for them to use a bedpan and take the gown on and off. It was also easier for a doctor to place a stethoscope on a patient’s back. The gown being tested at MedStar can be worn with the opening in the back. It also has snaps across the shoulders so it can be easily opened from the top. A box pleat in the back acts like a slit so that a patient can more easily use the bathroom.
Other hospitals across the country are using newly designed gowns as part of an effort to improve the patient experience. Many patients already feel vulnerable when in the hospital, and the old gowns just add to their anxiety and discomfort, MedStar hospital officials say.
“The total focus used to be on the medical aspect and not their personhood,” said Dr. Mark Smith, chief innovation officer at MedStar Health. “Health care systems are now dealing with more than just illness and disease.”
Tomi Lynn Dolecki tried the gown while at MedStar Montgomery after having a c-section earlier this week.
“You definitely have more privacy because it ties in front,” Dolecki said.
The 31-year-old who lives in Germantown said the open front also makes it easier to breast-feed her new baby girl, Everly. The gown fit better than the old ones, which she described as a big drape.
Some hospitals are also hoping the new gowns can help save money. The ones being used by MedStar are made of a cotton and polyester blend that officials hope will stand up to more washings and last longer. Patients often wore two of the older-style gowns — one tied in the front and one in the back — to keep their backsides covered. MedStar officials hope fewer of the improved gowns will be used, also resulting in a cost savings.
Other hospitals have also upgraded their gowns. The Cleveland Clinic in 2010 commissioned fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg to design a gown that covered the behind. The Henry Ford Health System in Detroit rolled out new gowns that opened in the front three years ago.
MedStar executives first learned about the gowns created by Care + Wear at a medical innovation competition. Care + Wear looks for ways to make clothes more patient-friendly. The company was founded in 2014 after a friend of the founders began undergoing chemotherapy through a PICC line, or catheter, and was told to wear a sock to protect and cover the site. Care+Wear developed PICC line covers.
Co-founder and CEO Chaitenya Razdan, who grew up in Timonium, said he remembers hating hospital gowns as a child.
“I remember being seven years old sitting in a hospital bed with tubes in my ears feeling like I was wearing a dress that exposed my butt,” he said.
The design team of Parsons students interviewed patients, doctors, nurses and even hospital laundry workers to get ideas. The patients wanted more coverage. They also wanted to be able to open and close the gown on their own, which was difficult with ties in the back. The doctors needed to be able to easily examine patients.
“The whole reason for the open back was accessibility,” said Brendan C. McCarthy, an assistant professor of fashion at Parsons. “The need for a doctor to be able to get to a patient for an examination was very important.”
The students tried a closure on the side of a gown. A patient who had just gotten back surgery said he couldn’t twist to close the gown. Elderly patients also found it difficult.
“We tested a lot of prototypes on people of different ages and experiences,” said Irene Lu, a senior at Parsons who helped come up with the design.
The new gown comes in a variety of sizes rather than one-size-fits-all. Some hospitals have several styles of gowns for different procedures. Lu and her fellow students say their one design can be used for everyone.
MedStar will try the gown out for an undetermined amount of time and give the Parsons students and Care + Wear feedback for improvements. Already MedStar doctors and nurses have started taking notes. The open chest of the gown is not a good fit for everyone, one nurse has noted. The designers and the health care practitioners all expect the gown to evolve over time.
“We see this as the first step of a major endeavor,” McCarthy said.