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Quilters Design Hospital Gowns with More Personality, Privacy

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, March 30, 2010

It's not clear who invented the backless hospital gown, but evidently patient dignity was not part of the equation.

The news this month that U.S.-born fashion designer Ben de Lisi's patient-friendly hospital gown redesign was among the winners of a competition by Britain's National Health Service got no small amount of media attention, in part, because everyone who's ever worn a standard hospital gown has vivid memories of that unsettling draft astern.

With respect to Mr. de Lisi, this is not new. In fact, quilters in Westerville, OH, near Columbus, have been offering free designs for patient-friendly hospital gowns since 2005. In that time, their pattern has been downloaded more than 46,000 times, and hundreds of paper patterns have been delivered, all at no cost.

"It's a way we can give back," says Joan Hawley, the owner Lazy Girl Designs, a quilt and handbag design company she runs with her husband. "Most of the people in the quilt industry are from a nurturing background: nurses, school teachers, homemakers. We contribute in the ways we can to the world around us. This is one thing my company can do."

Hawley got the pattern from a design by fellow quilters who had made a customized hospital gown for a friend with leukemia.

"They got so many requests for it that I offered to formalize it into a pattern. So they came up with a design and the instructions on how to put it together," she says. "It was collaboration: they on the front end, me on the back end."

The gowns are designed with the patient and the provider in mind. "For instance, to access monitoring the chest with a stethoscope or a heart monitor with wires or other leads, we created a really attractive access point at each shoulder so the gown can be folded forward unbuttoned or un-Velcroed so you can have some modest access to the chest without inconveniencing the patient." Hawley says.

The gowns also have a pocket over the chest that is large enough for a standard heart monitor, which does not have to be disconnected when gowns are changed.

Of course, one of the more popular alterations is the expanded backside coverage. "It has a little bit of extra fabric covering just where you need it with two ties for security. You can keep everything in place," Hawley says.

It's easy to joke about drafty hospital gowns, but Hawley says the redesigned gowns have genuine therapeutic value for people who are often frightened and highly stressed about being in a hospital.

"The hospital gowns you get wherever it is you land have been worn by everyone else and they are used to the point where there is barely a fiber there. They are nearly transparent, really quite worn. There is no personality. It just adds to the sterility of the environment," she says. "But to have a friend or a loved one pick out some fabrics that reflect your taste, or personality, or sense of humor, it gets you talking on another level with the staff and the practitioners. It's an ice breaker."

Hawley says she's gotten "tremendous feedback" about the gowns.

"I just got an e-mail from a nurse in a hospice where some local Girl Scouts are making gowns for the patients," she says. "A student pursuing her Master's in Fine Arts is doing her thesis on her own journey with an illness that she has, and she is using the gown as a basis for a sculptural project."

Hawley recently made several of the gowns for her 72-year-old father, with novelty patterns that featured classic cars and playing cards, two of her father's passions.

"He absolutely loved it. They did everything but whistle," she says. "We offer a children's size gown and the mothers who write in and tell us the stories about what the children and the families go through. There are tragically so many stories. It gives you a sense of what they are going through."


John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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