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You’re at work…finally, your break is here. You run out for a quick bite to eat. Or it’s the end of your shift and you’re heading home. Did you change out of your scrubs and into street clothes before you left the building? 

There are distinct groups of thought regarding wearing scrubs in public during this time of coronavirus. But mostly, there’s a large divide between the public’s perception and assumptions versus the medical professional’s research and opinion. 

The General Public Eyeing Those Who Wears Scrubs in Public

Recently there have been social media and news reports of people confronting medical professionals for wearing their scrubs in public. The general public’s fear of the spread of coronavirus has brought to light questions such as: Can the coronavirus be transferred though scrubs? Are all scrubs contaminated? Should nurses wear scrubs in public? Should healthcare workers be allowed to wear scrubs outside of work? 

What the general public fails to acknowledge is that not all scrub-wearers work in the medical profession that comes across individuals who carry pathogens, let alone with people who may have tested positive for coronavirus or other contagions. Psychiatry, optometry, neurology, audiology, and podiatry to name a few medical professions that generally do not work with coronavirus patients. 

It’s the perception and assumptions of the general that brings up concern. The perception that nurses or other medical professionals wearing scrubs outside the office, (most likely thanks to medical TV shows), is that scrubs come into contact with pathogens of all kinds, and these potential pathogens may spread disease and harbor danger. Social media has been especially rife with posts about medical professionals or specifically nurses wearing scrubs in public.  

Medical Professionals Speak Out

After a review of an article written by William Heisel for USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, it’s clear medical professionals feel that best practices lean toward NOT wearing scrubs in public. 

Some research shows there’s a potential transmission path involving scrubs and lab coats that had been worn in a hospital environment. Other research shows that transmission of pathogens is rare. "Only after it is proven that scrubs in public cannot spread disease to others can we legitimately support the practice," wrote Dr. David C. Martin (“Antidote,” 2011). 

Many health care professionals sided with Dr. Martin at that time. Conducting studies in this area have their own set of difficulties, starting with how to administer controlled conditions to prove transmission success and its rates. Some general bacteria and scrubs studies have been completed. A study conducted in 2018 ascertained that health care worker attire is frequently contaminated (30%) with bacteria. Simply put, scrubs are susceptible to contamination and bacteria accumulation.

Today’s scrubs are made with fabrics that are a newer technology – one that helps repel liquids and allows for more air pass-through. This has changed the field of how fabrics and pathogens interact. Controlled studies on the vast array of fabrics used for scrubs and more progressive high-tech fabrics need to be conducted to adequately address the question; is it okay to wear scrubs in public.

But is it Safe to Wear Scrubs in Public?

The jury is still out, but the jury is siding with not wearing scrubs outside the medical facility. And whether it’s safe is nearly a moot issue since the public’s perception is still that “any set of scrubs” equals transmission of potentially dangerous germs. Or that wearing scrubs in public is unethical. 

Post Shift Best Practices

Here is a shortlist of recommendations for those who may or may not have access to a changing area at the workplace:

  • Generally, do not wear your scrubs outside of the workplace.
  • Bring a plastic bag with you to work (preferably a bag with handles). Use this bag to place your scrubs in after a day of work.
  • At work, have a change of clothes even a change of scrubs, in case of emergency.
  • At the end of your shift, carefully change out of your scrubs using disposable gloves, place them in the plastic bag and close the bag. Being extra cautious, place this bag in the trunk of your vehicle.
  • When home, bring the plastic bag of scrubs directly to the laundering area to be properly washed. Don’t forget to pretreat any stains

While many hospitals and healthcare facilities have policies on wearing scrubs in public after work, healthcare workers still wear scrubs outside. An overall directive doesn’t seem necessary, further research still needs to be done. And erring on the side of caution, especially in this era of COVID-19 and its variants, MRSA, and other diseases, it’s best to follow the advice of other medical professionals and researchers about the potential risks of spreading pathogens, and simply practice changing into and out of scrubs before going into public places.