Dr. Michael M. Warren, an Ashbel Smith professor of surgery in UTMB's division of Urology recently addressed one reader's nostalgia for the traditional white nursing uniforms of the past in his weekly health column for the Galveston County Daily News.

Q: Whatever happened to nurses dressed in beautiful, starched, white uniforms with caps? They looked very professional to me, and it was easy to tell who they were among all the other hospital employees. Now, everyone is wearing scrub suits and it’s often very confusing, even though they have name tags which are small and very hard to read.

A: I believe you are correct in your observations about the change in nurse uniforms. Not only have the uniforms changed, but the jobs they do also have changed. In the old, white uniform days, nurses might have looked professional, but their professional duties were very different from what they are now. Both groups did bedside nursing, taking patients’ vital signs, giving shots, making beds, and even cleaning patients and their rooms.

Today, they do much more, including a large number of administrative details dealing with such diverse activities as protecting patient’s safety, to developing and implementing patient care plans for both in the hospital and after discharge. They also often have to get “down and dirty” in their direct patient care, and believe me, those nice white uniforms would not look so good, when stained with everything from patient bodily fluids to dealing with broken machinery.

Although I never wore one of those old-time uniforms, I can promise you they were at best uncomfortable and at worst a monster job of keeping clean.

I believe scrub suits are OK. I also believe you deserve the right to know who is taking care of you and what their jobs are. If they don’t tell you and you can’t tell from their name tags, then ask them what role they will play in your care.

By the way, the caps the old nurses wore often were of significance. They were of different shapes, each shape unique to a nursing school. They generally also included a black stripe, or stripes, on the front of the cap. That was in the old days, if you ask a nurse today about nursing caps, most will tell you they represented what school the nurse graduated from.

What they will not know (I will bet) is the significance of the black stripe. It actually was placed on the caps in remembrance of the death of Florence Nightingale, generally considered the mother of modern nursing. Now you will be able to impress nurses with your historical knowledge.