Medical gowns are vital for the protection of both patients and healthcare providers against the spread of infection. When deciding what kind of gown is right for your setting it is important to note that you can choose between disposable and re-useable gowns, each with its own distinct advantages. Here is a simple comparison between disposable and re-useable gowns through the lenses of protection, cost, reliability, environmental impact and availability.
Protection against surgical site infection
The primary purpose of either disposable or reusable gowns is as personal protective equipment meant to protect the patient from nosocomial or surgical site infection, as well as the doctor from any infectious pathogens that might be given off by the patient. Therefore, the most important question in the disposable vs re-useable gown debate is which one is better suited for personal protective equipment.
Traditionally, disposable gowns have been favoured over reusable gowns as having a more solid, reliable and reproducible bacterial impermeability. Re-usable gowns are subject to a number of environments and scenarios that may affect their effectiveness as barriers against cross-contamination including transport, safe storage and laundering, each of which may introduce pathogens to the gowns if handled incorrectly. Additionally, some studies have shown that repeated washing may reduce the effectiveness of re-usable gowns (Gruendemann 2002). Therefore, when looking at protection against penetration of infectious body fluids and microorganisms, it appears that disposable gowns may hold the advantage.
From a cost-saving standpoint, re-usable gowns are often touted as being more budget friendly. However, the reality is not quite so clear cut. While it is true that re-usable gowns allow hospitals to safely launder and return gowns to service, therefore saving budget on buying new gowns every time, there are other costs associated with reusable gowns. These costs include transport, storage, laundering and decontamination, which can build to a significant amount over time. As such, there is no clear winner between the cost of disposable and re-usable gowns and each hospital will need to do its own cost analysis for better understanding of how this will affect your practice.
This is one area where disposable gowns clearly hold the advantage over re-useable ones. In order for re-usable gowns to be considered safe they need to be laundered, sterilised, inspected for faults, carefully stored and safely transported, all without becoming contaminated in the process. This means that there is an added layer of complexity when compared to disposable gowns that are prepackaged and ready to use immediately, making them more reliable and less susceptible to user error.
Re-useable gowns are most likely better when it comes to their impact on the environment. Re-usable gowns can reduce the amount of waste produced by healthcare providers, by reducing both the waste caused by the production of gowns, as well as by their disposal. This means that re-usable gowns are likely more resource-conservative and better for the environment as a whole.
Personal protective equipment needs to be sourced on a regular basis from suppliers, something that is constrained by supply and demand dynamics. This means that shortages are common whenever there is a large spike in demand. With proper laundering and sterilisation, re-usable gowns can be used multiple times, meaning that they are required in smaller volumes than disposable ones, making them easier to source and more suited to surge capacity situations. Therefore, if disposable gowns cannot be sourced, re-usable gowns are a viable alternative until disposable gowns are available again.
B.J. Gruenemann, ‘Taking Cover: Single-use vs. Reusable Gowns and Drapes’, Infection Control Today, 2002, https://www.infectioncontroltoday.com/view/taking-cover