Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System
Palo Alto, California
In 2014, the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN) published guidelines on operating room attire. The guidelines stated: “A bouffant hat should be worn to cover all of the hair, scalp, and ears to minimize skin and hair shedding and protect surgical patients from bacteria.”1 A related article from the AORN stated to: “prohibit personnel from wearing skull caps altogether unless they are completely covered by a bouffant hat.”2 The guidelines also stated that health care providers’ arms should be covered with long-sleeve apparel while in the OR.
What followed was a de facto prohibition on skull caps. Virtually overnight, OR managers across the United States removed skull caps from locker rooms, forbade personal skull caps made of cloth, and mandated the use of jackets within the OR areas. Surgeons and anesthesiologists were caught off guard and became upset as these top-down mandates were suddenly implemented with little or no physician input. The medical community was doubly frustrated to find that these guidelines were not based on rigorous scientific evidence, but rather “a number of studies showing that hair can be a source of bacterial organisms and potential surgical site infection.”3
Surgical attire mandates were quickly incorporated into local hospital policies and Joint Commission surveys, facilitated by AORN guidelines which provided OR managers with ready language.
The debate over surgical attire raises troubling questions regarding the roles of societies and individuals working in health care, the promulgation of policies, and the level of scientific evidence behind these policies. What is the authority of AORN, and how did its guidelines come to have such widespread influence? Why did the Joint Commission include the AORN surgical attire guidelines in its surveys with little or no physician input? How many other Joint Commission standards have dubious scientific justification? What other latent opportunities exist for nonphysicians to influence physician practice?
Prior to this episode, many physicians would have deemed a study of OR head covering an amusing sideshow—perhaps even a waste of time—but this controversy demonstrates that any issue, no matter how trivial, can become an opportunity for nonphysicians and regulators to influence physician practice. Only by taking proactive ownership of all things in the perioperative arena can we ensure that policies are held to the same “burden of proof” as our clinical practices. Ample opportunities exist for us to establish medical evidence and best practices in scientific, regulatory and policy areas. If we don’t do it, others will do it for us.
- Bartek M, Verdial F, Dellinger EP. Naked surgeons? The debate about what to wear in the operating room. Clin Infect Dis. 2017;65(9);1589-1592.
- Spruce L. Back to basics: surgical attire and cleanliness. AORN J. 2014;99(1):138-146.
- Association of periOperative Registered Nurses. www.aorn.org/ about-aorn/ aorn-newsroom/ health-policy-news/ 2017-health-policy-news/ aorn-guideline-for-surgical-attire. Accessed January 29, 2019.
- American College of Surgeons. http://bulletin.facs.org/ 2016/ 10/ statement-on-operating-room-attire/ . Accessed January 29, 2019.
- Kowalczyk L. No more surgical caps for surgeons? https://www.bostonglobe.com/ business/ 2016/ 08/ 31/ hat-wars-flaring/ abr7FuB9EZna1FRtECDR1K/ story.html. Accessed January 29, 2019.
- Shallwani H, Shakir HJ, Aldridge AM, et al. Mandatory change from surgical skull caps to bouffant caps among operating room personnel does not reduce surgical site infection in Class I surgical cases: a single-center experience with more than 15,000 patients. Neurosurgery. 2018;82(4):548-554.
- Elmously A, Gray KD, Michelassi F, et al. Operating room attire and healthcare cost: favoring evidence over action for prevention of surgical site infections. J Am Coll Surg. 2019;228(1):98-106.
- Markel TA, Gormley T, Greeley D, et al. Hats off: a study of different operating room headgear assessed by environmental quality indicators. J Am Coll Surg. 2017;225(5):573-581.
- Kothari SN, Anderson MJ, Borgert AJ, et al. Bouffant vs skull cap and impact on surgical site infection: does operating room headwear really matter? J Am Coll Surg. 2018;227(2):198-202.