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Etiquette column: Proper dress for health-care workers

Professional attire important for making visitors feel at ease.

Friday, April 5, 2013 - 12:01 am

Times may have changed, but courtesy never goes out of style. In today's world sometimes it's complicated to figure out how to do the right thing. Local etiquette expert Karen Hickman answers your questions or helps solve your dilemmas on Fridays in The News-Sentinel and at

Q. Karen, what is the appropriate dress for the staff and physicians in offices and hospitals today? I see so many unprofessional looking people working in health care. You can't tell who the nursing staff is from the dietary people, and when they come in and out of a patient's room it would be nice to identify who does what.

A. This question is one that causes confusion in many workplaces, not just the medical arena. Staying current and up with the times in dress is important. The days of everyone being in white and nursing caps seems to be a thing of the past. However, problems can arise if guidelines are not specific. Dress codes left to individual interpretation can leave room for big surprises.

Uniforms of some sort give an air of professionalism and a sense of solidarity. Different departments often adopt a certain color unique to them and easily identifiable. For instance, pediatric staff may want to gear uniforms to the children so they do not seem threatening. In certain departments, lab coats over street clothes offer protection and look professional. Hospital-supplied scrubs are essential in many areas and reduce concern for getting clothes soiled and from bringing germs in from the outside.

Shirts or coats with hospital and group logos offer another good choice.

One of the most important ideas of uniforms is to let the public know who you are, that you are at work, not at play, and that you are not some stranger off the street who comes into a patient's room in the middle of the night. In short, you should look like what you do and who you are.

If anyone has to question what you do or if you are working, it may be time to re-evaluate what you are wearing.

The need to move unencumbered in many situations presents some unique challenges. Here are some basic tips for dressing today in the health care arena:

•Establish well-defined dress codes and enforce them.

•Be clean and well-groomed. Shorter fingernails are more professional and more hygienic. Save nail art and dramatic nail color for social situations.

•Hair kept short or up is suitable and more professional in all business situations. Keep makeup subtle.

•Fragrances should be kept to a minimum, and if you smoke, consider how you smell leaning over a sick patient.

•Clothes that fit properly are a benefit to everyone, no matter the size.

•Clothes should be clean, well-maintained and pressed.

•Pantyhose should be worn with skirts; bare legs are unprofessional.

•Invest in and use a full-length mirror before leaving the house.

•Pants may not be flattering to all women. If that is the case, consider a uniform with a skirt.

•Jackets and blazers add an air of authority and professionalism to men and women.

•Identification badges should be visible at all times (first names only may be necessary for security reasons). Enforce identification with an introduction.

•Save athletic shoes for athletics. Wear clean, polished, professional shoes. No sandals — closed toes and heels are best.

•Jewelry kept simple and to a minimum presents a more professional image.

•Gum chewing is not a part of any uniform.

Individuals in administrative positions or positions that do not require a uniform, including physicians, should use care to look professional and well-groomed. It is just as important as those requiring a uniform.

Karen Hickman is a certified etiquette/protocol consultant and owner of Professional Courtesy LLC. Do you have a question for her? Email, and we’ll forward it to her.