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Ink and scrubs

Should doctors show their tattoos at work? DOs speak out

The debate continues regarding tattooed doctors. Here’s what DOs have to say about showing ink while on the job.

For emergency physician Jedidiah Ballard, DO, the tattoo of a large wolf adorning his entire left shoulder represents his childhood in the rural mountains of the West. “I always had a pet wolf,” he says. “They were among my best childhood friends. I respect the strength, loyalty and intelligence of the animal.”

The ink factor

In the ER in Augusta, Georgia, Dr. Ballard says his tattoos often help him connect with patients.

“I will show my tattoos to some patients to create an immediate bond, which is of great value in the fast pace of the emergency room,” he says. “Except a subtle cross on my wrist, my tattoos are covered by my scrubs.”

A recent study of over 900 patients in the Emergency Medical Journal found that visible tattoos or piercings don’t affect patient perception of a doctor’s professionalism or competence.

Forging connections

Although tattoos have become much more accepted by the general public, physicians still have differing views when asked whether it’s appropriate for doctors to show their tattoos at work.

Darrin Lund, DO, who is currently serving on active duty with the Army, says his tattoos help him create a rapport with soldiers.

Darrin Lund, DO, shows his tattoo of Michigan and the Great Lakes.

“I will be leaving active duty this summer, and I am currently interviewing for residency,” Dr. Lund says. “I don’t make an effort to hide my tattoos, as they are a part of who I am, just like my bow ties and goofy socks.”

Roya Mahana, DO, got a large tattoo during her residency training and also found that it helped her connect with patients. When patients asked about her tattoo, Dr. Mahana often explains it: A dragonfly represents her mother, who she lost suddenly; a big elephant represents herself; and a baby elephant represents her son, who was born the week her mother died.

Roya Mahana, DO, shows her watercolor tattoo of two elephants and a dragonfly.

“So many times, that has opened the door for patients to be more open about themselves, which is helpful in their care because the more I know, the more I can help,” Dr. Mahana says.

Currently, Dr. Mahana is required by her employer to cover her tattoo, however.

“Hopefully, I can show it again one day at work and show more people that the tattoo does not make the doctor,” she says.

Differing views

While many DOs, like Dr. Ballard, have tattoos and are very much in favor of displaying them in the workplace, others have different views.

The demographics of your patient population may determine the appropriateness of tattoos, says Anita Showalter, DO. “If you’re in a geriatric population, you’re sending a very different message than if you’re working with adolescents,” says Dr. Showalter, associate dean at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Yakima, Washington.

Emergency physician Chris Giesa, DO, takes a more conservative view when it comes to tattoos in the workplace. “I know some of our docs have tattoos, but they’re covered by their scrubs, not out in the open,” says Dr. Giesa, who is president of the American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians. “Some of our medical technicians have tattoo sleeves. I personally don’t think that’s professional.”

While tattoos don’t impact a physician’s ability to provide care, the presence of tattoos may stop patients from seeking care, says David Garza, DO. “If you have a patient that doesn’t like their doctor wearing tattoos, then they might not come. The interpretation is in the eyes of the other person,” he says.

Dr. Garza is the head of the primary care residency program at Laredo Medical Center in Texas, a federally funded medical facility where employees are forbidden from showing their tattoos.

Jeffrey Grove, DO, a family medicine physician in Largo, Florida, keeps an open mind. “As long as they’re professional-looking and somewhat discreet, I see no reason why tattoos can’t be a part of someone’s life,” says Dr. Grove. “I personally don’t have them, but it’s OK if someone else does.”

For further reading:

Does it matter if doctors wear white coats?

What’s the ideal medical specialty for your personality? 

Single GME update: More than 6,600 AOA residency positions are now ACGME-accredited

23 comments

  1. As I have said before, the osteopathic profession is not a motorcycle gang! Respect the human body as it was created by God, not as a billboard for all of your personal messages.

  2. I’m a board certified anesthesiologist in practice for almost 20 years. I’m also a Navy reservist currently on deployment and have also served 8 years on active duty. I have several tattoos. The visible ones patients, family members and coworkers can see are the symbol of the 101st Airborne (when I spent 2 years with the Army), and my Naval hospital logo. In addition, my two kids’ names are on each arm. These tattoos represent the fact I’m a down to earth individual who is able to communicate with patients and their families on their level. There are plenty of patients who were either in the military, or have/had family members in the military. When they see my artwork, they’re much more at ease, knowing they will be treated with the care and respect they deserve.

  3. As a Jew we have a very simple answer to this very simple question. For all of those who read the Torah, see Leviticus 19:26-28 and we have the clearest answer one can have about this topic. The one G-d says, no tattoos, no markings on the body and no scarification for it is the ways of the idolators, to keep it simple. It is hard to argue with that. Even Moses Maimonides, one of the greatest physicians of all time, goes into great detail about this issue as well.
    If you were never taught this then nothing you can do for you were never informed.

    1. I have indeed read this multiple times, but I am afraid you have taken this scripture out of context. Who is the audience in the passage? The statement is clearly directed at a group of people who are openly worshiping false gods and using tattoos to ink themselves with false Gods. When in this context, you can understand the warning was not against tattoos directly, but indirectly. It was much more, a warning against worshiping anyone but the Lord.

      Sure you can make the “your body is a temple” argument, but that begs the question, in a temple do they simply build the walls and nothing else? or do they adorn it with God glorifying items and decorations? Sure the human body is not quite the same, But I have to imagine that someone with a tattoo of a cross on their arm which has directed many conversations about the Lord and possibly peoples’ salvation, How can God be upset if he receives the Glory?

      This ultimately turn into an argument not about sin and following the laws of religion, but one of culturally biased views on how one should masquerade their identity to fit into a mold that others have predetermined.

  4. The fact that there is even a question in this regard implies the answer: don’t. Tattoos offend some folks and not others. Share when appropriate but don’t force your culture or beliefs.

  5. I am a family medicine physician and a member of the Oglala Lakota, Diné, and Catawba tribes. I have several visible tattoos that I never try to cover up from my patients. They are symbols of my tribes and tattoos that represent my culture. I also have a visible semicolon tattoo in remembrance of a colleague who sadly took his own life. My patients never have a problem with my tattoos and often times it helps to forge a connection with my patients. When a patient suffering with depression or anxiety see my semicolon tattoo they know I’m an advocate for mental health. I feel as long as you aren’t showing off anything offensive that tattoos are not a problem whatsoever. I am a firm believer that we each have the right to express ourselves, some do with a haircut, some with the clothes they wear and others with their tattoos. More and more physicians are tattooed so for those who are offended, I’m sorry I am not sorry, but you will have to get used to it.

  6. This conversation is exactly what is wrong with the country today. We have individual liberties, rights, to do and say as we wish as long as it is not impeding another’s rights. If a patient does not respect their doctor’s intellect and bases their decision on presence of a tattoo, or any other quality, then that patient is free to exercise their decision making ability and change doctors – problem solved. Requiring staff to hide the presence of tattoos because they may impede access to healthcare is a joke – a tool used by some administrators to exert their power ( and personal beliefs) over those who will submit to it. On a larger scale eradicating anything potentially offensive to anyone, as is happening in our country now, isn’t going to bring us to a better place. Actually seems like it would bring us to a much less interesting and one-dimensional place. Interesting how diversity is such a promoted policy… except when those in power are actively and selectively squashing it.

    Show ’em if you got ’em.

  7. No patient has ever made a negative comment about tattoos in general or mine specifically. I have only one that can be seen, depending on the length of my sleeves, the others are covered. I have had patients ask me about the tattoo that they can see. I feel like they like knowing something personal about me since I know so many personal things about them. It’s a way they can start the conversation. I think other doctors have more of a problem with tattoos and piercings then any patients do. Way back in medical school I had other students complain to the administration about the fact that my piercings and tattoos were unprofessional. The admistration let me know about the complaint and pretty much told me that they didn’t care. I had the piercings and tattoos when I was interviewed for the school.

    Tattoos and piercings do not make you a bad doctor or unprofessional.

  8. It may be generational, but as I was growing up the only people who had tattoos were men returning from the WW II, Korea, or bad guys. I still find tattoos inappropriate and unprofessional. I have rarely met anyone who had one for many years and did not eventually regret it.

  9. Why should physicians be held to a “higher standard”? We don’t receive any special considerations from anyone. I, for one, really don’t care what anyone else thinks. That boat has sailed.

  10. I have never felt compelled to add a comment regarding any article. However this series of comments left me scratching my head. Tattoos although popular currently are associated with many health issues. Many of the inks used are not even FDA approved for human use. Not that FDA approval guarantees safety. Introducing a foreign substance into the human body is associated with many risks. There is always the risk of and abnormal immune system response to the ink. I have seen many patients with severe allergic reactions to their tattoos. This is often diagnosed as cellulitis and treated with antibiotics which do no good and may cause harm. Some of these reactions are permanent and if you follow them they never resolve completely and the person is left taking antihistamines daily. Over the life of the person what consequences is this foreign substance going to have on their overall health. We know that the tattoo inks once injected migrate to the lymph nodes and cause enlargement so are we going to see an increase in cancer risk related to this. This is not a question we will be able to answer for years to come. So when I see a professional with a tattoo I wonder how well they learned immunology, how much respect they have for the body and first and foremost how much respect they have for themselves. As a physician I do not want to see any provider with a tattoo. I support individualism on all levels but I don not support humans causing harm to themselves.

    1. I also have not commented here before but felt a need to. Feeling that way after reading your post against fellow physicians too. Humans have a right to do to themselves whatever they see fit. Your role as a physician is to educate not to condone or condemn. How many humans cause harm to their body with inappropriate behaviors, with addictions – drugs, work, food, Etc? Do you silently judge and question the intelligence of your celiacs for eating wheat, or your diabetics for eating candy? What behaviors do you engage in for which I could point out the ignorance of basic biological facts? Some flaws are more psychological though. Pride, arrogance and judgementalism? These can be dangerous and unhealthy behaviors too. As physicians, let’s stick to providing our patients with the facts, respecting our peers choices and keep the moral authoritarianism under control.

      1. “Humans have a right to do to themselves whatever they see fit.”

        And our bosses and professions have a right also to uphold a higher standard.

        As an ophthalmologist i have seen chronic iritis in patients associated with tatoos.

        They are unhealthy and to many are unsightly. We have professional dress codes and that includes how you wear your clothes, and what you advertise on your skin, or what statements are written on your shirts, etc.

    2. Out of context? How many religious people do you see with tatoos? I dont recall any Prophets having them nor the pious. So its certainly not out of “context”. However, your interpretation is against the majority of religious scholars and is certainly out of context.

      1. “And our bosses and professions have a right also to uphold a higher standard.”

        … and if that “higher standard” is based on your physical appearance, that is discrimination.

        It’s ok to admit you don’t like people because of their appearance or behavior. That is your right. But you shouldn’t limit others because of your inadequacies, intolerance and unwillingness to accept others.

  11. The issue of a person getting tattoos in the Torah is an interesting one and is very clearly stated. The student Dillon posted a note which is a severe misinterpretation of what is written in very clear language. As a former Rabbinical student and physician I must clarify that the passage in Leviticus 19:27 states, “You shall not make cuts in your flesh for a person [who died]. You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves. I am the Lord.” First of all G-d is saying this very straight forward passage. According to every major commentary since the Torah was given 3300 years ago it means exactly what it says. This passage prohibiting tattooing is also listed as Torah Law Negative Commandment Number 348 of the 613 Laws of the Torah (yes, the Torah has more than 10 commandments). The law quotes this exact passage from Leviticus, that we are commanded by G-d not to mark our bodies in the service of G-d like other nations. We are being told clearly and according to all commentaries how NOT to give G-d honor and how NOT to serve him. Dillon, you are inventing your own interpretations and spreading falsities according to all commentaries. According to “interpretation Dillon” you are in essence saying that if it feels good and you think you are giving honor to G-d just do it anyways no matter what the Torah or G-d tells you to do. You are unfortunately following your own false god for you seem not to understand what is clearly stated in black and white.

  12. It seems that many of you don’t understand the concept of professionalism. Self expression is great, but there is a time and place for that. Where do you draw the line— Purple hair? A Mohawk? Piercings all over the face? A low cut shirt and miniskirt? Those are all fine and dandy on your own time, but when we are struggling daily to maintain respect and honor in our profession is that the best way to go about it? Most corporations have a dress code, especially for people of importance in the company. There is nothing wrong with that. You don’t wear jeans to a professional interview because it’s common sense. Let’s use that sense here.

  13. Individual liberty here is about the patient, not the doctor. People have individual reactions to tattoos, some fearful for social reasons and some indifference. To most patients, particularly those over 50 a tattoo, at best, represent a lapse in judgement interfering with the doctor’s ability to inspire trust and confidence. My father once told me if I ever got a tattoo don’t come home. I modified it with my own kids and made them promise that they would think long and hard before ever doing anything irreversible to themselves. My son, who is also a surgeon, having been exposed to his own temptations, thanks me.

  14. I have never been a person to comment on message boards. I read this article because it pertained to me. I am a do, And I am covered in tattoos. Even in dress clothes they are visible. It didn’t stop me from getting a highly competitive residency spot. It has never hampered my ability to provide care for patients. If anyone out there is worried or upset about matching or finding a job just know the people who really care about these sort of things are dying off. Be an amazing doctor and express yourself. Professionalism is about compassion understanding and intelligence. Not about whether you have different colors on your skin or a nose ring. Also I’ll be bringing the pink Mohawk back at some point. Xo

  15. I personally don’t have a tattoo, I do however have totally grey hair, that is long and worn in a flip pony tail. I have had so for almost 4-5 years now. I work in a community that is wealthy, older and very conservative. I am constantly amazed at how many of my older patients male and female ask me to take it down and show them. Perhaps it is my 20 yrs and already established representation, or how I carry it. Perhaps it is in the office I follow a dress code of coat and tie, or white coat and tie. In the hospital and ICU it is scrubs of course. I feel you can be un-professional and have no tats, conservative hair – or – be professional and be adorned. Some will always not like it, and that is probably how it goes.

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