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Why Can't We Have a Better Hospital Gown?

By Heather Millar

man in gown

When I first saw the press release about a new hospital gown design being introduced by the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, I thought, “Hallelujah! At least this is one medical problem we can solve. Next time, God forbid, I’m in the hospital, I’ll have warmer, more attractive gown that doesn’t flutter in the back, showing off my backside to all and sundry.”

The gown looks like reasonably non-ugly spa robe, with a contrasting kimono collar, a slit in the back that overlaps like an envelope, and snaps on the side that can both resize the gown and allow clinical access.

Then, I started to research the whole hospital gown issue. The usual design that patients endure is called the “Johnny gown.”  The story goes that it evolved in the 1800s: some say from nightshirts; others say from bed sheets. I can’t imagine that that revelation would surprise anyone who’s survived any time in a hospital clinic. The “Johnny” looks like repurposed bed linen.

Apparently, various groups have been trying to redesign the hospital gown for, well, a ridiculously long time. Here’s a smattering of efforts from the last decade or so:

Fashion designers have taken a crack at it:

  • The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, one of the nation’s premier cancer centers, has worked with designers Diane von Furstenberg, who suggested a wrap-around robe style, and Donna Karan, who added slits and Velcro.
  • In Britain, U.S.-born designer Ben de Lisi added jaunty stripes, snaps down the side, a pouch for a cell phone and a snuggly fleece shawl.
  • Designer Nicole Miller came up with a kimono-like version for Hackensack Medical Center in New Jersey.

And, as the Cat in the Hat might say, “But that is not all. Oh, no. That is not all…”

A Maine hospital designed a floor-length sarong to accommodate the modesty of Muslim patients. In Birmingham, England, they tried out Velcro jumpsuits.

Researchers have tried to solve the problem: Students in North Carolina, crowd-sourced a trial run of 500 prototype gowns.  Ball State University students came up with five new designs. University of Minnesota students preferred the kimono style. University of Cincinnati students came up with a twirl-y design with a sash. It reminds me of fairy costumes my daughter once fashioned out of silk scarves.

Any of these—even the fairy-like one—would be a big step for patient-kind. Yet, the horrendous Johnny gown remains the most common. Why?

Part of it is cost, I think. The open-in-the-back monstrosities only cost to and can be washed and re-used dozens of times. Nicole Miller’s version costs twice as much. Yet how to explain why newer designs in the same price range haven’t developed a widespread following?

One marketing blogger suggests that the needs of patients get lost in the course of polling endless focus groups and trying to accommodate “stakeholders,” hospitals, doctors, chief financial officers, gown manufacturers. Where are the patients here?

Perhaps it’s just the inertia of medical practice. Doctors and hospitals remain notoriously slow to change. The Wall Street Journal published several thousand words on the issue and quoted a vice-president of Premier, Inc. a non-profit coalition of 2100 hospitals as saying the Johnny gown gets “a bum rap.” He added, in the ultimate put-down, “Aren’t there more pressing problems worth tackling?”

Patients run into this all the time: “Hey, we’re trying to save your life with chemo, why are you whining about your bald head?” or “Would you rather live or complain about side effects?” or “What’s more important: being comfortable or getting the best treatment?”

I don’t see why we can’t have both clinical efficiency and patient comfort: Of course, being seriously ill is not exactly a trip to the spa. I’m not calling for someone to massage my feet during a blood draw. But little, little things can be such a source of comfort when you’re going through hell. I’ll never forget the doc who took 30 seconds to squeeze my arm before a major procedure, look me in the eye and wish me luck. I’ll never forget the infusion ward med tech who always remembered my family and who never failed to bring me a warmed blanket. A warm, comfortable, not-revealing hospital gown would likewise give comfort.

Maybe we patients need to rise up and demand an end to the Johnny gown. Oh, right, many of us are really sick and don’t have the energy for public advocacy. But come on, medical establishment: Give us some better gowns.

Until that happens, you can take matters into your own hands. If you know how to sew, get a free pattern here, and make your own. Tori Spelling allegedly did! Really, though, can you imagine the Beverly Hills 90210 star at a sewing machine? I bet she hired it done.

You can do that, too. BYOG (Bring Your Own Gown) offers pretty hip hospital gowns for moms-to-be. I don’t see any reason why cancer patients couldn’t wear them too.

Dear Johnnies and Gownies also make attractive options. Don’t expect hospitals to be supplying these high-fashion gowns anytime soon: Prices range from to .

When you think about lying, freezing, in a Johnny on a gurney, it might just be worth it.

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