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Why Do Surgeons Wear Blue?

Surgeons are famous and respected for studying for decades and saving lives with surgeries in the end. As a result, many people are interested in their lives and the “behind-the-scenes” in their careers.

If you are among the millions of viewers who enjoy surgical shows and documentaries, you might be curious: why do surgeons wear blue uniforms?

In this article, you will find out why surgeons wear blue uniforms based on the history of surgery, the optics of color, and the psychology of surgeons.

How surgical uniforms looked like before

The history of surgery is noteworthy to fully understand and appreciate why surgical uniforms are the way they are now.

In the early years of the 19th century, surgery has become a formal and respected branch of medicine and treatment. Most of the surgeons in Britain during this time were wealthy gentlemen and nobles.

To show off their standing and elevated status in society, these British surgeons wore their gentlemen’s suits even during surgeries.

Worse, they would treat patients with the same suit covered in blood, pus, and gore to prove their skill and expertise.

Fortunately, the fields of medicine and surgery evolved decades later. French microbiologist Louis Pasteur proved the germ theory and showed that bacteria cause diseases.

Most importantly, Pasteur demonstrated that heat and sterilization kill these pathogens.

This discovery inspired Joseph Lister, a surgeon in Britain, to sanitize and disinfect all surgical uniforms and tools. He told surgeons to properly wash their hands and ditch their gentlemen’s suits during operations.

In the years that followed, surgeons across Europe started wearing white surgical uniforms. As Lister advocated, white uniforms represented cleanliness.

Also, it is easier to spot stains of blood and body liquids on its garment, so surgeons can easily spot a potential infection risk.

This revolution in surgical care spared patients from post-operation infections and death. Lister’s policies on sterilization and dress code in operating rooms decreased the surgical mortality rate from 50% to 15%.

Since then, surgeons wore white uniforms. Later pandemics and outbreaks spurred surgeons to add more protection in their attire, like masks and gloves.

Why surgeons ditched the white uniform

As the 20th century began, the white coat remained the standard surgical uniform in most hospitals and facilities. Doctors and surgeons wore the same attire both inside and outside the operating room.

However, this began to change during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Surgeons noticed that what seemed to be an innocent uniform compromises and puts them at risk during operations.

Most of the time, surgeons intently look at dark red as they treat patients’ bloody organs and insides. But when they look away, their eyes are struck by the white scrubs worn by others in the room.

The eyes’ quick turn from seeing dark red to bright white has a side effect: it can blind the surgeon for a moment.

Numerous surgeons also reported suffering from headaches because of seeing these contrasting colors.

These issues are detrimental during surgery; surgeons must remain alert, concentrated, and focused while treating patients.

There is also a relevant factor why white surgical uniforms are problematic: such attires are hard to clean. Blood, gore, and pus can stain and stick on these white garments no matter how strong detergents can be.

Realizing these, surgeons gradually changed their standard uniform from white attires to green or blue uniforms.

Blue uniforms avoid any illusions that affect the surgeons’ vision.

If you looked at the camera’s flash for a picture, chances are you experienced seeing a speck of colors that followed your eyes wherever you looked.

Surgeons also experience a similar side effect during operations when they still wore white uniforms.

As they move their eyes from deep red to the white fabric, they see a distracting and confusing green illusion blocking their sight for several seconds.

Neuroscience and ophthalmology reveal why this happens.

The issue happens as the cones in the eyes and the optic nerves interact with the brain.

Surgeons deal with dark red human parts like blood and organs for several hours. Because of this, the cones and pathways that read red light have already become tired.

But when the surgeons glance at something white, the eyes struggle to determine which color it is because white contains all of the colors in the rainbow (including red).

So, by the time the signals reach the brain, the green pathways are also activated to compensate for the tired red ones.

This phenomenon causes the surgeons to see a speck of green that may distract them. Fortunately, wearing blue uniforms help surgeons avoid this illusion. Seeing blue objects allows the surgeon’s red receptors to relax and prevent desensitization.

Blue uniforms complement the dark red surgical site.

In the color wheel, blue is directly opposite to red. As optics suggest, these two colors complement each other. This fact contributes to surgeons in the operating room.

Since surgeons frequently shift their sight from the blue-colored uniforms to the patients’ bloody surgery, their eyes will not be strained and fatigued by the complementing colors they see.

Blue uniforms help surgeons maintain their focus.

Surgeons, for several hours, look at blood and organs that have different tones of red and pink. So, as their brain interprets these colors, surgeons unknowingly become desensitized.

This tendency is harmful to surgeons. If they unconsciously get used to seeing red and pink during a procedure, surgeons will fail to accurately confirm the state of the patient’s blood supply, wounds, and organs.

Because of this, seeing a color that complements red can help the surgeons’ brain regain focus and alertness. Blue is the solution.

Wearing blue uniforms solves the surgeons’ issue of desensitization to red and pink. Their brains become refreshed as they look away from the surgical wound (like while getting tools or looking at the other staff in the room).

In turn, surgeons regain their perception and alertness to red. Their eyes remain critical of the different shades of blood and organs in the site. Surgeons can then detect any hemorrhaging and variations in the patient’s anatomy.

Ultimately, blue surgical uniforms can reduce risks, accidents, and mistakes in the operating room.

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