Should Doctors Have Tattoos? 

Siobhan Harris

Disclosures

October 23, 2019

Can doctors have any tattoo they like? Are they a valid form of self-expression for doctors just like anyone else, or are there special rules for medics?

It's a grey area. There's no official good practice guidance from the GMC. It’s regarded as a matter for the individual and their employer.

At a local level individual trusts may have personal appearance policies which cover tattoos. For example, Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust suggests that any potentially offensive or intimidating tattoos be covered up, as long as this complies with hand hygiene procedure regarding long sleeves and likely contamination.

A 2018 study on perceptions of medical students and staff from the University of Dundee suggested that for doctors certain tattoo depictions wouldn't be appropriate. Both groups also agreed that face tattoos were the most contentious.

There has been a tattoo renaissance this century. Tattoos are no longer niche. It's estimated that 1 in 5 UK adults has a tattoo and for younger people it's an even higher proportion. If physicians reflect society as a whole, should whether or not they have a tattoo, and what type of tattoo it is, even be an issue?

That’s the opinion of 31-year-old Dr Sarah Gray. She's a surgical resident based in Adelaide, Australia who aspires to be an orthopaedic surgeon. She's been described as 'The World's Most Tattooed Doctor '.

Dr Gray wants to break down stereotypes about what a traditional medic should look like. Medscape UK spoke with her.

Q&A

How do patients and colleagues tend to react to your tattoos?

Patients and colleagues react to them in a positive way. I'm often complemented on my colourful appearance. Patients, in particular the younger generation, find it can be a good barrier break down and often say they feel I look more approachable than some of the more traditionally conservative doctors. I always dress presentably and ultimately if you're a good listener, have empathy and compassion, having artwork on your skin doesn't seem to matter. It certainly doesn't make you any less capable at the task at hand.

Do you think having tattoos can help in some circumstances to put patients at ease, as they can see you as an individual who they can talk to?

Absolutely. I encountered this frequently on my Emergency Medicine term. I also find that sometimes heavily tattooed patients feel more comfortable opening up to me, they have spoken of times they felt judged based on their appearance when seeking help.

Do you think that any tattoos should be allowed for doctors? Should there be some rules?

I don't think it should be the case of what is or isn't allowed for doctors, or anyone for that matter. Body art is a personal choice and it's just a form of art collecting, only it's on skin. Your appearance in no way defines you, nor your ability to be competent and we should encourage creative self-expression. Although I don't think having anything offensive visible would be appropriate in our profession.

Do you think that you are demonstrating that doctors don't have to conform to a certain look and can still be competent and professional?

I'm just being myself. I'm proud of who I am and haven't let my profession define me as a person. It's a huge part of who I am and I'm working hard to be a great doctor and future surgeon, but my life outside of medicine is just as important. Why should we have to fit into a pre-conceived mould of what others think we should look like to be a 'competent and professional' doctor? I say to everyone, just be yourself, and if you're caring, empathetic, competent and a hard worker you can be anything, especially a great doctor.  

Do you feel opinions are changing surrounding tattoos in general as more and more people are having them? Have you plans for any more tattoos?

All you have to do is look at the statistics alone to see the world is changing. Last year alone, in Australia 15% of people had at least one tattoo and that number is growing. Outside of medicine I own a tattoo studio with my husband, who is a tattoo artist & we see a growing number of professionals across all disciplines getting tattooed. I'm glad the stigma is changing, because having colourful skin doesn't make you a bad person. 

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