Recently, McKnight’s Staff Writer Emily Mongan wrote a blog that asked “…Who is the employee you’re dressed as?” As someone who has worked as a staff therapist, a department manager, a clinical manager, a regional manager, and as a consultant, I have seen everything. I would love to answer that question.

Early in my career, we therapists wore hospital uniforms (e.g. white non-breathable polyester nightmares) with white shoes that made us look uniform in our uniforms. A decade later we had progressed to professional street clothes with lab coats (oh, how I miss all those pockets.) Over time those multiple layers became hot, sweaty and unwieldy. The male therapists suddenly became “doctors” in the eyes of the patients. We moved on to scrubs, which are washable, breathable, comfortable, and establish who we are and what we do.

In recent years we have seen SNF rehab departments outsourced to agencies. There are lots of good and valid reasons for this, including financial, branding, cost-saving and burden-lifting. Those therapists carry the “brand” of their employer, frequently with the logo or name of the agency embroidered on their black polo shirts.

This is where the problem lies. Our therapists (more and more doctorates, master’s, bachelor’s and other advanced degrees) are wearing colorful polo shirts and khaki pants that make them look like they work at Kwik-E-Mart. No shame there, but more than one of my uniform-wearing employees have had to change their clothes before shopping, because they’ve been asked for help by shoppers who only see the colors they’re wearing. One of my facilities had outsourced housekeeping and laundry to another company. Guess what their uniforms were? Guess what the shirt color was? Guess who got asked for help taking out the trash?

There was a time when I complained to the headquarters of a nationally-known-yet-unnamed company I worked for as a regional director. I advocated for changing our branding to navy-blue scrubs with our logo on the shoulder. I was told that yes, the polo shirt/khaki combo was terrible but their concern was more about branding and apparently less about the professional credentials of their staff.

Taking away the healthcare worker status of a qualified staff member by forcing a dumbing-down of their work attire robs them of their credentials in the eyes of their patients, doctors, and staff. Imagine if a doctor entered a patient’s room to discuss test results dressed as if she was part of the maintenance staff. Who’s going to believe her opinion on the course of treatment? Who’s going to allow her to perform surgery?

It’s time to allow skilled and trained staff who deliver expert care to dress to inspire confidence in their patients. As Emily Mongan wrote, “Who is the employee you’re dressed as? Is it someone a customer would trust to care for their loved one? Is it a person who is dressed to work on their feet for hours every day, providing comfort?” 

Patients and families, whether new to long-term care or veterans, get a first impression by our manner, our speech, and our clothes. Make the first impression the best one.

Jean Wendland Porter, PT, CCI, is the Regional Director of Therapy Operations at Diversified Health Partners in Ohio.