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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.”