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Why Do Surgeons Wear Green?

Surgeons are also known for their attire. Pop culture and medical drama portray surgeons with green scrubs, caps, and gowns while performing life-saving operations.

With the popularity of shows like The Good Doctor and Grey’s Anatomy, millions of viewers associate the surgery industry with green uniforms.

This color scheme also helps patients identify surgeons from other doctors when surgeons wear their scrubs.

But surgeons do not wear green uniforms in the operating room just for show or style. The deeper reason behind this involves optics, attention, and the history of the surgical industry in the past century.

In this article, you will learn why surgeons wear green.

The color of surgical uniforms before green

When modern surgery developed in the 19th century, surgeons wore their gentlemen’s suits. After all, this attire reflected their social status and wealth during that era.

But in the early years of that century, surgeries were much more gruesome and brutal. The success rate of surgeries was only 50%. People died of infections, fevers, and septic shock after operations.

Relatively ignorant as they were, surgeons would wear their suits with all of their patients’ blood and pus. They did this to show off their skills, but they spread diseases and microorganisms from patient to patient.

But the medical and surgical fields were revolutionized by Louis Pasteur, a French microbiologist. He proved that microorganisms cause diseases, and exposing these pathogens to heat can kill them and sterilize the substance.

Inspired by this finding, Joseph  Lister, a British surgeon, theorized that contaminated surgical clothes and equipment infected patients, eventually killing them.

Lister advocated using sterilized tools and wearing clean and white surgical coats.

Wearing white uniforms signifies cleanliness and helps surgeons determine any potential source of infection since blood and body liquids can easily stain their white attire.

As a result, the post-operation mortality rate dropped to only 15%, and hospitals adopted Lister’s germ theory application. White coats became a standard uniform for surgeons.

Later on, as physicians and surgeons faced contagious epidemics, they added masks, gloves, and caps to their uniforms in the operating room.

The shift from white uniforms to green ones

But during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, surgeons realized that their white uniforms compromise their surgical operations and harm their vision as they treat the patients.

Surgeons focus their eyes on the patients’ dark red blood and insides for several minutes. But as they look up, their vision is struck by the clean, white scrubs worn by their colleagues in the operating room.

This side effect can, in fact, blind surgeons in the same way that the reflection of sunlight on the winter snow can hurt the eyes.

Moreover, shifting from dark red to clear white frequently even caused headaches among surgeons.

This risk is dangerous because surgeons must remain alert and focused at all times.

On the practical side, wearing white garments in bloody and gory surgeries can be expensive. These stains are difficult to clean!

These factors— their eyesight and laundry difficulties— made surgeons try switching to uniforms with somewhat darker colors, such as green and blue.

The medical community is starting to question the use of white gowns in hospitals now. The University of Melbourne points to some studies showing bacteria thrive in the pockets and sleeves of white hospital gowns.

Green complements the color red.

Starting only as a preference among surgeons, the case for green and blue as the colors for surgical uniforms became mightier in the following decades.

Optics show that blue and green stand at the opposite side of red in the color wheel.

Red complements the former two colors in the spectrum of light, so the surgeons’ eyes will not be distracted and strained as they repeatedly shift their gaze.

Green helps surgeons’ eyes maintain focus.

Most of the patient’s insides and internal organs (not to mention blood) have different shades of red. As their brain processes this limited shade of colors, the surgeons gradually become desensitized to red and pink.

Surgeons may also struggle to see the subtleties and variations in their patient’s conditions.

This tendency can be dangerous because surgeons must quickly determine the quality of the wound, the organs, and the blood flow in the parts that they operate.

Looking at something that contrasts red can help relieve the surgeons’ brain from desensitization to red.

Since green opposes the color red, seeing the surgical team members’ green uniforms increases the surgeons’ perception and alertness to the surgical site.

Their eyes become more focused on the different hues of red, so the surgeons can easily see and focus on the patients’ anatomy and any hemorrhaging that may occur.

Wearing green surgical uniforms, therefore, can reduce the risks of accidents and errors during procedures.

Green prevents any illusions in the surgeons’ vision.

Have you tried staring at a camera’s flashlight while taking a picture? Did you experience seeing a blotch of colors in your eyes following your vision wherever you move your sight?

Focusing and looking deeply at red has similar side effects for surgeons during operations. This reason, which involves neuroscience and ophthalmology, also rendered white surgical uniforms obsolete.

When surgeons look at white fabric after dealing with blood and organs for many hours, a green illusion will appear in their sight. This green spot may confuse and distract surgeons when they look back to the surgical site.

The researchers at the University of Padova point out that cones in the eyes interacting with the optic pathways to the brain cause this issue.

The pathways of red light in the surgeons’ eyes are already tired and desensitized from all the blood and organs they see.

Since white contains the spectrum of colors in the rainbow (red and green included), the brain interprets the white signals as green, leading to this distracting illusion.

This tendency is solved and avoided if the surgeons wear green uniforms instead of white ones. Seeing such a color that contrasts with red relieves the surgeon’s color detection and blends with the potential color illusion.

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