The Power of Appearance

fotolia_120043070_xsMeet Jerry, a new registered nurse in on-the-job training who will begin shadowing you next week to learn to how to conduct sick call. She asks you what she should be thinking about in preparation for this role. You respond by saying that how she does in sick call will establish her competence and clinical authority in the eyes of the inmate population and to prepare for an onslaught of sick call requests as everyone seeks to meet and test her skill.

All patients, not just inmates, assess a nurse’s visual appearance to form an opinion about their confidence and professionalism within the first few seconds of an encounter. In correctional nursing, the inmate’s best opportunity to make this assessment will be during a sick call encounter. Since inmates have no choice in who provides their nursing care they are naturally interested whenever someone new joins the nursing staff.

The traditional white uniform was first established by Florence Nightingale in the early 1900’s to distinguish nurses from lay persons who attended the sick at the time and raise nursing to a respectable profession characterized by caring, compassion and clinical competence. Even though the white uniform has given way to more comfortable and durable clothing it still is the strongest association identified by the public between professionalism and nursing.

The correctional facility you work at has no dress code policy for health care staff. The security staff are provided navy blue uniforms with badges and other insignia detailing their name and position within the organization. Health care staff are simply advised to dress in clean and comfortable clothes appropriate for work in the facility.  In considering what advice to give Jerry in preparation for next week you reflect on your past experience at the facility about staff who were able to establish their authority, confidence and nursing competence early in their correctional nursing career. What advice will you give her as a result of this reflection?

Patients want to know that the person caring for them has the credentials to do so. In fact, some state boards of nursing require that registered nurses be identified clearly by name and credential. Nurses who are accountable for their practice introduce themselves to the patient at the beginning of the encounter. Nurses who do not want inmates to know their name or credential will be unable to establish the trust necessary to obtain important information from the patient about their condition and risk poor care outcomes. Jerry has been issued a name tag but keeps it in her pocket and only shows it when asked.

Staff who dress in a more formal, uniform style are considered significantly more skilled and knowledgeable by patients than those dressed like they were ready for the gym, rooting for the local team or sporting funny sayings. While individual self-expression in attire isn’t prohibited by the facility, it took longer and was more challenging for these staff to prove their competence and skill and project authority when it was necessary. Jerry seems to prefer a t-shirt and scrub pants for work attire.

Some of the staff have taken to wearing polo shirts which have embroidered their credential as a certified correctional health professional on the front. Others wear colored scrubs which fit properly and can be layered based upon working temperatures. Staff who wear patterned or cartooned scrub tops have sometimes been coached if it made them appear too informal, approachable or friendly with inmates and their professional authority was challenged. You note that another aspect of projecting professionalism and respect for the patient and others is wearing clothes that are clean, neat and fit properly.

As you talk with Jerry about creating first impressions she laments that it is all a charade-people should judge her on her actions not her appearance. While you agree with her that there is a lot more to a person than just the visual impression created by the first few seconds, it is however, a vital opportunity, not to be squandered. When you ask her if she wants to see the pilot of the plane she just got on, in sweats. She looks at you a second and gulps. You go on to say “That may be the only information you have about the competence of the pilot flying you across country. The pilot’s appearance is important to you to feel safe and trust that the flight will go according to your expectations. Your patient is the same way, dressing professionally helps them have confidence in your ability and trust that you will take care of them appropriately.”

Jerry shows up Monday morning confident that with your ongoing help and advice she will do well learning how to do sick call like a pro. fotolia_119206347_xs

Do you have a different viewpoint about the impact of the nurse’s appearance in establishing professional authority in the nurse patient relationship? If so please share your views by relpying in the comments section of this post. For more on professionalism in correctional nursing see Chapter 19 in the Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order a copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon today!

Photo credit: © one- Fotolia.com

One thought on “The Power of Appearance

  1. Thanks Catherine for a good article and one that hits home. Having been in nursing 50 years, I started out in the white uniforms and cap era and have seen the changes through the years. When I worked at a hospital, I would get upset when the patients thought the cleaning staff were the nurses because they looked nice in colored tops and white pants. I have heard stories about inmates treating nurses badly when they were wearing jeans and sweatshirts and smoking when on med rounds. Currently, I see most all corrections nurses wearing scrubs or white lab coats and wearing name tags (some only last name and some only first names) and credentials. Lets keep improving the patient care with professional, skilled nurses who patients can be proud are caring for them.

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