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No more denim; no more SpongeBob scrubs

U. Hospitals and Clinics goes for professionalism with employee dress code

SALT LAKE CITY — No denim skirts. No faded corduroy pants. No sequined tops, no baggy tops, no hoop earrings larger than 1.5 inches in diameter. No frosted eye shadow.

When the University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics adopted a new dress code for its 7,000 employees this year, it opted for conservative and very specific. The policy will be fully in effect by July.

The idea, says CEO David Entwistle, is to provide an environment in which patients feel confident that they're in capable hands.

"It's a reflection that we take our job seriously," says hospital spokesman Chris Nelson. "It's hard to keep that faith in your care provider if the nurse is wearing SpongeBob SquarePants scrubs." Also considered "not professional": hoodies, fleece vests, flannel, sandals, more than two rings per hand, pleats that don't lay flat.

On the list of acceptable dress: conservative, classic, modest, tailored — cardigan sweater sets.

The specifics of the new policy, which took two years to hammer out, came from a team of employees, not from hospital administrators, says Nelson. But the need for specificity was requested by managers who felt the old policy was vague and inconsistently enforced.

"I would sometimes see folks with ripped, holey clothing that might be stylish in a different setting, or they'd be at a counter, showing cleavage," says Julie Schmidt, a registered nurse who is manager of the emergency department and who served on the dress code committee. "Or people who like to wear their slippers or flip-flops.' "

So now all nurses will wear white, with red, navy or black bottoms. Pharmacists in the emergency department will wear olive. EMTs and certified nurse assistants will wear red, black or navy, and there will be a color-coded chart in each patient's room to keep score.

The new policy does not apply to the U.'s physicians or medical students.

"Sloppy appearance equals sloppy work — that's what we internalize," says Roberta Hughes, president of Avidere, an image consulting company hired by the U. hospitals and clinics. In the health care industry in general, "we've been seeing an overall decline in presentation," Hughes says. "Sometimes patients can't tell the difference between a person on the street and an employee."

Patients also had complained that they sometimes couldn't tell who was who among the parade of people in scrubs.

"Patients would be lying in a hospital bed and would see someone in scrubs and they'd say 'Can you tell me about my test results,' and the employee would say 'I'm just here to sweep the floor,' " says Schmidt.

Hospital spokesman Nelson guesses, based on anecdotal accounts, that about 70 percent of hospital employees agree with the new policy and 30 percent think it's taking away their freedom.

Matt Fenwick, a spokesman for the American Hospital Association, said he knows of no overarching trend toward more conservative or consistent dress in the nation's hospitals.