Thursday, October 30, 2014
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Doctors' appearance may be more important than they think

While physicians are usually more concerned with monitoring patient heart rates and reading lab results than with their personal grooming, a recent study showed that a physician's appearance can be quite important. It is part of making patients' families feel comfortable in a high-stress hospital environment.

Doctors’ appearance may be more important than they think

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While physicians are usually more concerned with monitoring patient heart rates and reading lab results than with their personal grooming, a recent study showed that a physician’s appearance can be quite important. It is part of making patients’ families feel comfortable in a high-stress hospital environment.

The study, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found that about one-third of patient families members in an intensive care unit (ICU) considered a lack of tattoos and piercings important in their first impression of a physician. While this number is considerably less than those for other professional attributes that respondents deemed important – wearing an easy-to-read name tag (77%), neat grooming (65%) and professional dress (59%) – the number is still considerable.

Respondents also favored traditional medical attire, such as a white coat (52%) or scrubs (24%). They were less partial to a suit (13%) or casual attire (11%).

So what it is about a clean-cut, tattoo-less doctor in a white coat that makes family members more comfortable with the care the patient is receiving?

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According to the study, respondents associated professional attire with honesty, knowledge, and better care. Surprisingly, professional appearance was more important to patients than even age, which is typically an indicator of experience. Patients’ families may believe that a physician is more competent or intelligent if he or she is dressed appropriately for the hospital.

Physician grooming may be particularly important in an ICU because of the high-pressure environment in which patients’ families need to bond quickly with the physician who is working to keep the patient alive.

While professional grooming and attire send clear signals to family members in a hospital, it is less clear why a physician with a tattoo would seem any less trustworthy than one without. Tattoos and piercings seem to retain a stigma.

According to a 2010 Pew Research study, almost four-in-ten teens and twenty-somethings (so-called millennials) have a tattoo. About half of those with tattoos have between two and five, and 18% have six or more. And nearly one-in-four individuals in this age group have a piercing on a body part other than an earlobe. 

Right now, patient family members in the ICU are more likely to be Baby Boomers. And the numbers are drastically different for them – far fewer have body piercings and multiple tattoos. That could account for the difference in attitudes.

While it is possible that opinions may change as the millennials age and become the family members holding vigil in ICU waiting rooms, one thing is clear. For the time being, critical care doctors should consider covering up the tattoos, taking out the eyebrow ring, and putting on a white coat. It may seem trivial to some, but it is a small price to pay to increase the trust of patients’ families in those taking care of their loved ones.

-       By Erica B. Cohen

About this blog

The Field Clinic reports and analyzes health care laws, government policies, and political trends that are transforming the care we receive and the way we pay for it. Read more about our panel of bloggers here.

This blog is produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health-policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. Portions of this blog may also be found on Inquirer.com and in the Inquirer's Sunday Health Section.

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Robert I. Field, Ph.D., J.D., M.P.H. Professor, School of Law & Drexel School of Public Health
Jeffrey Brenner, MD Founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, Medical Director of the Urban Health Institute at Cooper University Healthcare
Andy Carter President & CEO, The Hospital & Healthsystem Assoc. of Pa.
Robert B. Doherty Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs & Public Policy American College of Physicians
David Grande, MD, MPA Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
Tine Hansen-Turton Chief Strategy Officer of Public Health Management Corporation
Drew A. Harris, DPM, MPH Director of Health Policy Program at the Jefferson School of Population Health
Antoinette Kraus Director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network
Laval Miller-Wilson Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Health Law Project
David B. Nash, MD, MBA Founding Dean of the Jefferson School of Population Health
Mark V. Pauly, Ph.D. Professor of Health Care Management, Business Economics and Public Policy at The Wharton School
Howard J. Peterson, MHA Managing Partner of TRG Healthcare, a national healthcare consulting firm
Donald Schwarz, MD, MPH Deputy Mayor for Health & Opportunity and Health Commissioner for the City of Philadelphia
Paula L. Stillman, MD, MBA Healthcare consultant with special expertise in population health and disease management
Elizabeth A. W. Williams Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer for Independence Blue Cross
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