Curious About Germs On Hospital Scrubs

By Kate Merrill, WBZ-TV

BOSTON (CBS) – Massachusetts is rich in hospitals, and any time you’re near one, you’ll see hospital employees walking to and from work wearing scrubs or lab coats. It’s what might be on that clothing that makes Andy from Arlington curious, and nervous.

He wants to know: “With hospital superbugs apparently on the rise should I be concerned from a public health standpoint?” We found that there’s a big debate going on about just that.

You don’t have to look hard to find hospital employees walking around wearing scrubs. You’ll even see them at restaurant counters and tables. Since many hospital employees come into direct contact with patients, some people are concerned that the scrubs and lab coats they wear can be contaminated with bacteria and germs.

WBZ-TV’s Kate Merrill reports

“It’s a danger for patients and for the public,” says Betsy McCaughey, Ph.D., the head of the non-profit Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths in New York. She sees two problems. “One is that they’re spreading bacteria from patient to patient within the hospital and they’re also allowing hospital superbugs to escape,” she says.

We checked with five of Boston’s biggest hospitals and found strict clothing rules for people who work in operating rooms and other sterile environments. They must use freshly laundered scrubs and they can’t wear them out of the OR. However, most other employees can do what they want, and wear the hospital type clothing in and out, to and from work. In those cases, hospitals look at scrubs as “street clothes,” and employees are responsible for keeping them clean.

“I don’t think there is a major public health issue or concern,” says Dr. David Hooper, the chief of infection control at Mass General Hospital. He says the main focus is on hand hygiene since that’s where most contact takes place.

“We really consider it extremely important. We track that very carefully. We’re in the high 95% range for a number of years now,” says Dr. Hooper. And if there’s a risk that clothing could be contaminated, the employee must take action. “Then extra gowns are worn that are then taken off and discarded,” he says.

But critics say that’s not enough. “The solution is that hospitals should be providing laundered attire for hospital personnel,” say McCaughey. While some hospitals in other parts of the country are doing that, others say research isn’t showing a clear problem. For example the American Medical Association recently studied possible clothing contamination, but told us the findings were “inconclusive.” The AMA says the issue needs more research.

Let us know what you’re curious about.

More from Kate Merrill
  • hospitalsnotdoingenough

    My father developed an infection after surgery at a Boston Hospital. He died from it. I was surprisedwith the intensive care unit (cardiac unit) was letting non immediate family into my fathers hospital room. When I found out I put a stop to it. The people I questioned about hand washing and use of antiseptic use, told me no one in the icu told them to use it befor touching my father. One woman told me one nurse told them to use it after they left the room. How is that protecting my elderly father’s safety and privacy. I see this time and time again. Prevention is the name of the game with regard to infections its not rocket science. Ms. Merril should ask the hospital why this was happening. Elderly people are known to have comprimised immune systems. You can’t throw antibiotics at all patients and expect them all to be cured. The hospital defenders always use money as an excuse, but there is no defending the indefensible. I side with the vulnerable, elderly patient, not the Large Hospital Corporations. An ounce of prevention may have saved my Father from such real agony. They can and should do better. I don’t want to hear any more excuses. SEPSIS KILLS. I think it is prudent for the hospital to have the employees change clothes. I don’t think we need a “study “to figure that out.. Copper materials in patient rooms have shown to prevent some bacteria counts. We can always do better, but we have to keep trying, not keep defending. Hit the hospitals in the pocketbook like Medicare did. Clearly doing the right thing isn’t motivation enough.

    • Italo

      Amen. Great post and points, IMO. Also, when individuals are admitted into hospitals, especially post-operative to recuperate, the very first day they should be verbally reminded of and be visited by a physical patient advocate accompanied by a list on which the patient, or the individual designated to speak for them if they’re currently unable to do so, can indicate any concerns, needs, questions, or requests that they may have and want assistance/advocacy about.

  • Conerned Patient

    If scrubs are necessary and they stay in the hospital and they launder it fine. But are my health care costs rising, because it costs the medical community more and more to keep scrubs that leave the hospital clean? My employer doesn’t provide clothes for me, and I wear my own. I find it awful that the medical community leaves the hospital with scrubs. . . . . and wears them as street clothes. Am I paying for that?

  • hojo

    As someone who worked in illnesscare for many years, I can speak with some authority. Wearing scrubs in public may be a problem if they are soiled with any form of body fluid, but otherwise the risk is minimal. Remember that many individuals, such as doctors and visitors, have close contact with patients while wearing “normal” street clothing, which does not raise any flags. As was mentioned in the article, handwashing is key in infection control. For years I had the chapped hands to prove it.

  • Roxanne

    Also remember that any patients that any medical personal come in contact with that have any”superbugs: or other precautions have to wear precaution gowns. Like hojo said ” the risk is minimal” if we stay clean. Also anyone with these infections that are discharged are out in the public are responsible as well. They are in subways, grocery stores, malls, restaurants touching everything that you touch. It is just not medical personal that are responsible for spreading this infection it is everyone! Why should you have to gown up and glove up in a hospital but not in public? This article is going to get all the public nervous and when they see nurses out in the public they are going to think of us as dirty people and not give us credit for how hard we really work.

  • Mark

    I would be more concerned about them wearing the scrubs out in public and then going back into the hospital after traipsing around who knows where.

  • David

    Interesting article and a subject I have been wondering about. Not in terms of what the hospital employees are carrying with them as they leave but what they are taking into the medical facility. I live on Beacon Street near the Longwood medical area and see scrubs on people who walk and ride bikes. As the back of the scrubs pant legs drag the ground, they are collecting dirt and other junk and bring it into the facility. I see how discussing the back of my pant leg looks after a rain; I can only imaging what these scrubs look like.
    I guess a germ-o-phoebe can get wigged out about the potential infiltration of germs but maybe the time has come for hospitals to stop this practice and say sorry people, you need to start wearing your clothes to work and change when you get here…… It may be an inconvenience at first, but like all changes in policy, people get use to it.

  • linda

    Was this an issue years ago when nurses wore their white uniforms outside of the hospital.

  • Carol

    People must realize that other people wear scrubs too…dentist office personnel, private laboratory personnel, office personnel in some offices wear scrubs. I refuse to believe that any hospital (having worked for several) would not have rules in place to prevent this from happening. The public needs to be reassured that the hospitals have VERY strict policies about infections and ALL employees in the hospitals whether they work in a sterile environment or not are held to the same strict rules and regulations about germs, handwashing and the hospitals reinforce this with teaching every few months.

  • Dan

    Kate – You should check out the food processing industry on how they dress and handle food.

    Comparing the two you see we have more concerns in food safely than what our hospital workers do with our health when in their care.

  • richard rosenthal

    I am a Democrat and Progressive. Betsy Mc Caughey is a conservative. whois putting us to shame by her incisive and productive advocacy re hospital infwections. Not onlydothey killl 100,000 people a year, together with hospital errors, liker administering the wrong drugs, they cost taxpayers $35 billion a year. Burt Democrats, prersumably champtions of Medicare, remain indulgent of these preventable errors and infections. Shame on us. Congratulations, Betsy.


  • Maureen

    I did a study on a prototype of an antimicrobial scrub top versus non-coated scrubs in nurses in an intensive care unit and medical unit. I cultured the scrubs at 7am and again at 3pm. While the antimicrobial scrubs initially worked they lost their effect after a few weeks of washing them at home. What amazed me the most was the number of bacteria present on the front of the scrubs at the end of the day in the non-coated scrub tops (and the visible stains). Some staff wore the same scrub for days – I could tell by the stains on the front that I was culturing (even though they denied it when I asked them). I also cultured MD lab coats and was shocked at the visible dirt and the presence of Staph aureus on the surgeon’s lab coats. A study was published in the American Journal of Infection Control on contaminated lab coats in a large teaching hospital in Pennsylvania. Of 148 lab coats 23% grew Staph aureus and 18% grew MRSA
    Treakle — Bacterial contamination of health care workers’ white coats American Journal of Infection Control 37:(2) 101-105 (March 2009)
    I recommend healthcare workers to bring their clean scrubs to work and wear street clothes back and forth so they don’t bring bacteria – like MRSA and C.diffcile – to their family and home. Surgeon and resident lab coats should be cleaned by the hospital or provide them at a fee for service since most MDs don’t think of taking them home and frequently washing them!

  • MedWorm RSS Feeds · Curious About Germs On Hospital Scrubs

    […] Click here to view the original post. […]

  • Kara Elam, MPH


    I was just curious about the study you conducted in the ICU: What was the specific antimicrobial used? How many washes before there was a significant difference in the effectiveness of the antimicrobial? Also who was your PI and has this study been presented at a meeting?

    I’m asking because I took part in a research study that was similar and we just presented the data at SHEA this year.

    Thank you, Kara Elam, MPH

  • Arrow

    When are the hospitals going to learn? Every room and all equipement needs to be treated either with ozone gas or ultraviolet light.

    They actually have ultraviolet light units to move from room to room to sterilize all surfaces. Why are hospitals not doing this? They also plase UV lights in air filtration systems. They do it in Russia.

    Ignorance is why we have this infection problem. Hospital units are filthy. Nurses, doctors and administration are all to blame..

    Bone heads I say, More worried about the cost than your life and now thanks to them more MRSA is found in the community than in the hospital… and I tell you right now MRSA is only the tip of the iceburg of what they are brewing in this hospitals.

    People should be outraged!

    Fortuantely there are good alternative medicine protocols to cure NRSA. See the Wound Clinic in LUbbock Texas that uses Phage Therapy. You don’t need that foot to be cut off.

  • Arrow

    Chlorine dioxide is the only liquid sanatizer that they should be using. It will also kill the spores of C-diff… another medical nighmare coming out of conventional medical care.

    All units need UV light to kill germs on surfaces. All staff should have UV light to expose their hands to after washing. All sinks should have UV light shining on faucets.

  • Thailand Hua Hin

    appreciated this post and i do not wish to be that individual… nonetheless i do feel that possibly your site could look a little better if you had a litte white in it. Only my suggestion, definitely appreciated this post otherwise :) Thanks.

  • A Guide To Recognizing Your (Hospital) Saints: Nurses Edition | Call Me Watson

    […] via/source […]

blog comments powered by Disqus
Taz Show
Download Weather App

Listen Live