In the end, redesigned hospital gowns could make patients happier

Monday, April 20, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

RALEIGH, N.C. — While federal law prevents hospitals from revealing information on a patient, the gowns those patients wear might provide more details than they'd like.

The News & Observer of Raleigh reports that a North Carolina State University design team is working on a plan to end the issue of partial disclosure once and for all.

North Carolina State textile design professor Traci Lamar has the financial backing and serious research to develop a restyled garment that could finally be practical for hospitals across the country and less embarrassing for the person having to wear it.

"They are really not only undignified and immodest, but it is influencing some behavior and some attitudes," Lamar said. "One patient literally used the word 'mortified': 'I was mortified at the thought of getting out of the bed.'"

The quest started in November 2006, when Lamar and researchers working with her received a $236,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Since then, they have surveyed patients and health care workers, held focus groups and talked to hospital staffers in charge of buying gowns. The point was to identify the qualities most needed in hospital wear.

The researchers learned nurses don't like the ties holding gowns together, because they are prone to become knotted . They also found that many patients wear two or three gowns at the same time.

"The only way I could feel covered and ready to face the public was to wear two of the gowns," said Locke Bowman, 82, of Southern Pines, a retired Episcopal priest and seminary professor who broke his ankle in 2007. "One was tied awkwardly in the back, and the other was tied in front. I was so busy trying to recover quickly that I just put up with the gowns as a necessary nuisance."

Patients also don't care for the lightweight fabric.

"The gowns are so thin they are really just a rumor between you and the staff," said Jean Bolduc, 50, director of corporate communications for the Durham Housing Authority. Bolduc had neck surgery in July at Durham Regional.

The North Carolina State group will soon request a second phase of funding from the foundation to produce a prototype. As part of this phase, they plan to conduct laboratory evaluations and wear tests, develop manufacturing specifications and have a garment ready to go. At the same time, they will research fabric that resists bacteria and viruses, to be incorporated into the garment during a third phase of their work.

Meera Kelley, a physician who serves as vice president for quality and patient safety at WakeMed, hopes her hospital will be able to test the new garment. Whether the hospital buys the final product depends on price.

WakeMed currently pays $5.59 for a standard gown, which sustains 40 to 50 washings before it is thrown out. If the new garments are very expensive, WakeMed may not consider them worth the investment.

But satisfying a patient's sense of modesty is worth something, too, Kelley said.

"I think people tolerate a lot that they wouldn't tolerate in the real world because they are sick and vulnerable," she said. "I think we need to do better."

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