Color Coded Nursing


Recently I was a patient in the hospital overnight for medical tests.  It has been awhile since I either worked or was a patient in a hospital.  Something I noticed was that every one of the staff wore scrubs even the doctor. Each one had on a name tag but unless I was within a couple feet of the person I couldn’t see what it said.  Now this is nothing new but as a patient, I was acutely aware of the fact that I couldn’t tell who was who as far as staff.

I think most people know by now that scrubs are the official “uniform” of nurses. The problem as I see it is that many healthcare organizations have their own rules about color choices and who gets to wear which color. I can see for travelers how this could be a problem since colors can vary from hospital to hospital.  Some facilities have more than half a dozen different colors in their coding system making it even more complicated.

When I first started working in the OR we all wore green unisex green scrubs that were furnished and maintained by the hospital  The biggest problem was you would get to work and not be able to find a top and a bottom that would fit.  Once it became fashionable to wear scrubs in public uniforms began to disappear.

I see the standard colors of light blue, white, navy, burgundy or black are most often used for simplicity. The dress code of the unisex top and drawstring pants make it possible to always find them in stock.

Goal of Color Coding

When a facility chooses to color code the staff the goal is to differentiate one specialty or department from another.  Not only for the purpose to make it easier for staff but for patients as well.  The colors should make it easier to figure who is supposed to do what.

The downside of this strategy is patients still don’t know who the nurses are.  Patients don’t know what the colors mean.  Staff do not necessarily know what the colors mean either.  The worst part is that everyone else gets to wear what they choose.

I must say however that color coding can be helpful.  Communication is the key.  If you inform a patient on admission the color all RNs are wearing the patient feels more comfortable with who is entering their room.  Also, it relieves some of the stress of getting ready for work since the choice has been made by the administration.

What Nurses Like About Assigned Colors

The number one reason nurses like color coding is taking the guesswork out of getting dressed for work.  Solid colors make it sinple to since there is no wory about finding a matching top and bottom.  There are so many styles that finding something to accentuate your body should not be an issue.

When the choice is limited maintaining a wardrobe can be less expensive. It is expensive to buy enough scrubs so you don’t look like you’re wearing the same clothes every day.

When I worked in the OR the hospital laundered our uniforms when they were all standardized.  I know there are some employers who still provide this service.  Not only does it save money on laundering but you don’t take home all those germs.  There are some employers who also provide a stipend for purchasing uniforms when they require color coding.

What Nurses Hate About Color-Coded Scrubs

Of course, there are those who hate color coding.  It would seem that more hate wearing one color than those who like it.  Many hate the specific color they are mandated to wear. There is the complaint of fading and then colors not matching.  Some just hate wearing the same color every day.

Some believe that color coding negatively affects morale. When you have worked in a facility that allows staff to wear a variety of scrubs then it is hard to understand the point of color coding.  There is nothing new about having a dress code.  Employers have to think about the patients they serve while understanding the needs and desires of the employee.

How do you do to personalize your uniform if you color code? Are you allowed you accessorize with a  different color undershirt contrasting in the V-neck of your scrubs? Maybe you kick it up a notch by sporting fashionable clogs.

As a travel nurse going from facility to facility you more than likely are changing uniform styles and colors frequently so color coding may not be an issue.

What do you think nurses about wearing matching solid-color scrubs?

  • Yes, I like color coding because it helps patients better identify nurses.  It also helps me save time getting dressed for work.
  • No because I think nurses ought to be allowed to express individuality.
  • Is this an issue for travel nurses?




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Cheryl Roby, RN

Cheryl J. Roby is a Registered Nurse and retired US Army Reserve Nurse Major. She has more than 30 years of nursing experience and 26 years of military experience in the Army Nurse Corp. During her nursing career, she has traveled as part of her military experience visiting many of the 50 states and to South Korea. She was trained as an Army Medic during the Vietnam era and later as an OR tec. She went on to become a Licensed Practical Nurse and then completed her nursing training as a Registered Nurse. She was then commissioned as an officer in the Army Reserves. She appreciated the challenge of working in various specialties and expanding her clinical and professional skill sets. Her time in the Army Reserves and California National Guard gave her the opportunity to travel to most of the 50 states and work in other medical facilities. During her career, she had the opportunity to work in several specialties to include, OR, Occupational Health, Hospice, Sexual Assault Team, Forensic/ Correctional Nurse, Nurse Case Manager for developmental disabilities, Parish Nursing as well as a Nurse Entrepreneur.

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