How Unsettling Is It That Doctors Wear Scrubs to Whole Foods?

Emporium of Medicinal Wonderments: In an ongoing series, the curious men and women of The Atlantic bombard me with their physiological curiosities. 

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Heather HornWhy do I see doctors wearing their scrubs to go get lunch? As in, across the street from the hospital, in Whole Foods. Do they just walk out of surgery and then drag their disease-laden scrubs through the quinoa at the salad bar?

Sometimes, yes. Scrubs-outside-the-hospital has been an issue for a while. Lots of places have policies against it, but it still happens. To be fair, though, most people you see probably aren't walking right out of surgery or anything.

Then why are they wearing scrubs?

I mean scrubs used to be something only doctors and their assistants wore, in the operating room, and then they'd change back into their suits and whatnot afterward. But now in a lot of places they're an accepted uniform for almost anyone who works in a hospital, in and out of the OR. Doctors and nurses, but also technicians, lab workers, sometimes even receptionists.

No way. Why would people willingly wear those things?

You're basically wearing pajamas to work, so it's liberating. And I think media played a role in making the appearance acceptable. It's what they wore on ER, etc. Not that it matters particularly that they're scrubs; it's more the fact that they didn't change out of what they wore when they were around sick people and contaminated things. They have to be bringing some infectious organisms with them a fair amount of the time.

A fair amount? How much should I worry about that?

Never worry about anything ever. But there was a study last fall that out of 135 doctors and nurses, 8 had MRSA on their scrubs

Doctors' opinions are all over the place on how dangerous this all really is. Some think that even pens and cell phones shouldn't be taken in/out of hospitals, but some say it's all blown way out of proportion. There's at least some degree of cognitive dissonance, in looking at the number of doctors who do it and the number who agree it's bad.

Is it that hard to just change and shower before you leave the hospital? If ER got people wearing scrubs, why couldn't Grey's Anatomy get people to use locker rooms? It seemed like that was where at least 80% of the action occurred.

Well, Atlantic friend Dr. Elaine Schattner has said "it's primarily a matter of hubris, that doctors think they're above the rules." Dr. Charles Rosen said that in his training "residents who would sneak out scrubs and wear [them] during off hours usually did it to attract women." 

In any case, changing before you leave the hospital just isn't part of the culture in most places. Maybe because hospital locker rooms are often small and dank and out of the way, if they exist at all. But you also don't have a lot of time, so you run out to grab a sandwich when you can, and you run right back.

So how do you wash your scrubs?

A lot of people just wash them at home. I just learned that if you let the hospital wash them, they're almost totally sterilized, but 44% of bacteria remain in the fabric after washing scrubs at home.

Wow, that's truly disgusting. Also it's a great evolutionary argument for not marrying a doctor. Your dog would be a MRSA ball. Could you just get some sort of bacteria-resistant scrubs that you can wear in and out of the hospital?

Inevitably someone is looking into that, and it would be amazing. 

So should I tell off these people in Whole Foods?

If you're not too overwhelmed by attraction to them, sure.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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