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New gowns in town: Designing better patient clothing for everyone

- February 22, 2017

Trying out a prototype gown during a design session last November. (Provided photo)
Trying out a prototype gown during a design session last November. (Provided photo)

You’re in a hospital: bright fluorescent lights, people poking and prodding you, your backside visible in a patient hospital gown.

“You feel vulnerable in the gown,” Dal medical student Saif Syed says. “You feel vulnerable, you feel powerless.”

Syed used to work in a hospital in Toronto, focusing on innovation and patient satisfaction. Through his many interactions with patients, he realized that they were much more forgiving towards the mistakes a clinician might make than they were about how the hospital experience made them feel.

Patients were not forgiving of the hospital gown, in particular, which made them feel as though their dignity had been taken away.

But the gowns are integral to patient recovery. Poorly designed gowns limit patient mobility, and if a patient is not moving around enough, they can decondition. Clothes also impact the way one feels. If one feels good, the recovery process speeds up.

Syed understands — which is why he’s conducting a research project to design a new gown, one that works best for patients, physicians, and other stakeholders involved.

The first part of the project took place in November, at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). Ten NSCAD students met up with five Dal medical students and two patients to explore ideas for a simple and economical gown that cut a balance between giving health-care providers access and protecting patients’ dignity.

Improving health care through better design


They came up with three prototypes. Each one is made with durable material that gives physicians easy access with front openings and easy fastenings. The designs also maintain patient dignity with more fastening locations and options, such as a belt around the waist.

The prototypes are not the end goal, though. They are tools for learning about patient gowns and how to improve them.

“We learn by doing,” Syed says. “We all think, but until we do it and build it, we can’t explore the nuances.”

The prototyping session, which brought med students, designers, and patients into the same room, has been eye opening for Syed.

“It brought unique sets of expertise . . . to table. The NSCAD students had their unique niche, the med students knew what areas of patients to access, and the patients had their own stories to tell,” he says. “When unique expertise comes together on an equal playing field, it breaks barriers between professions and gets people thinking about how design impacts health care.”

The prototypes will act as starting points of discussion during focus groups with patients, physicians, and health-care administrators next spring, when Syed and his team will assess the needs of the different groups.

Syed is interested in seeing the partnership between Dal and NSCAD continue to grow. He says he was fortunate to have been able to create his own research project and plan this collaboration.

“If we increase partnership,” he says, “I think there’s a bright future for where health-care design research can go at Dalhousie.”


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