Published: April 24, 2013 Updated 3 hours ago
By Renee Elder — email@example.com
RALEIGH — Hospital attire isn’t exactly high fashion, but a revamped version of the irritatingly skimpy patient gown is getting a lot of buzz at N.C. State University’s Fashion Week.
The new front-fastening garment, designed by an N.C. State professor, is billed as “functional and dignified,” with back-end alterations to improve patient modesty and built-in features to accommodate high-tech equipment.
For now, the look of the new gown remains under wraps, to prevent any patent infringements, said Traci Lamar, the gown’s primary designer.
“But this one definitely offers better coverage than the current one, and it looks a little less dress-like,” said Lamar, who opened her Fashion Week presentation Wednesday with shots of Jack Nicholson from the movie “Something’s Gotta Give” clad in a traditional hospital gown, looking frail and sheepish.
The redesign will come out of the closet later this year, when it is tested at WakeMed. The trial run, set to start this summer, will be used to gauge reactions of patients and, just as important, of the nursing staff, said Kenneth Murray, director of performance improvement for the hospital.
“If the caregivers don’t like it, the patients won’t know about it and it will never get used,” Murray said. “But if the patients really like it, that will be big.”
A new gown design is long overdue. Lamar said the original open-in-the-back garment stems from a time when patients remained on their backs in bed for long periods and the most common apparatus was a bedpan.
“Since then, patient care has changed,” she said. “Now doctors want patients up and walking quickly.”
That’s hard to get patients to do when it means exposing lots of skin between the loosely tied back flaps of a traditional gown.
Part of what has kept the old style alive so long is convenience for nurses and other hospital staff. The traditional cotton gowns are made to withstand 50 or more washings, hold up well to rough handling and offer easy access to nurses administering shots, starting IVs and carrying out other medical procedures.
Lamar said her design will be practical as well as stylish, with polymer plastic snaps that won’t cause problems for MRI scanning equipment and with folds and flaps that will allow patients to move about with medical equipment lines and bags attached.
The wait for production on the new gown has been long. Lamar started to work on it in 2007 with a few students and faculty members at N.C. State’s College of Textiles and had nearly completed a new design when the project lost its funding source in 2009. The initial design development was underwritten in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Eventually, however, Lamar said she connected with Rockethub, an online “crowdfunding” site that allows people to seek donations for business startups or to fund innovative ideas that need further development.
“We were finally able to get the support we needed by going to the public,” Lamar said.
Lamar is having prototypes of the gown manufactured using DermaFabric from Precision Fabrics Group in Greensboro. The fabric is a polyester and nylon combination that facilitates movement and reduces friction, lessening the chance of bedsores, said Terry Montgomery, vice president of Precision Fabrics.
If the WakeMed trial goes well, Lamar said she and the university plan to jointly pursue a patent, then license the design to a company that would make and sell the new gown.
Patients in the WakeMed trial will be given various versions of the new gown, some with the new fabric and some in regular cotton. Already, tests have shown that DermaFabric is hard to fold, one of many concerns for a hospital system that may go through a thousand gowns or more in a day.
Murray, at WakeMed, said such details can be worked out, especially if patients offer favorable reviews. He thinks the gowns could offer WakeMed an edge in the highly competitive hospital market.
“If we can provide them with an environment that feels more comfortable, they will choose us,” Murray said.