Will that tattoo hurt you professionally? Not if you're a doctor, study finds

Your parents were wrong: people don’t perceive your professional abilities differently if you have a tattoo, a new study shows.

Over the course of nine months, patients at a Pennsylvania hospital rated the competency of doctors with and without body piercings and tattoos. The results showed no preference for “clean” doctors — those that were not wearing tattoos and piercings.

A total of 924 patients were surveyed on their overall emergency department stay including professionalism, approachability, and competence of their provider. In the patients’ feedback, there were no differences in perception of care between “clean” and tattooed or pierced providers. Neither was there a difference in patient satisfaction between male and female providers.

The study results didn’t surprise Brooke Worster, program director for palliative care services at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. She has three tattoos: Roman numerals of important dates on the back of her neck, the names of her daughters in script on her forearm, and the latitude and longitude of where she was married on her foot.

Camera icon Courtesy of Brooke Worster.
Dr. Brooke Worster does not attempt to cover her tattoos when she’s at work at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Worster never attempts to cover her tattoos at work. She said the only people that have commented that the tattoos could be viewed as unprofessional have been her colleagues. In fact, she said the tattoos have helped deepen her relationships with her patients — either because they like tattoos, or because they offer something to talk about other than sickness or injury.

“Doctors and patients have human commonalities,” Worster said. “It creates a stronger physician-patient bond.”

When she got the tattoo on her forearm in 2016, her patients asked her about it.

“[My tattoos] are probably one of the most frequent, random conversation starters,” Worster said. “[Patients] will tell a story about their own tattoo or daughter’s or son’s tattoo.”

This is not the first time tattoos among medical professionals have been studied. Previous studies have shown preference for traditional-looking physicians but those studies were photo-based — potentially drawing more attention to the body art — and not conducted in a clinical setting. This new study suggests that widespread hospital policy forbidding visible tattoos and piercings among providers is not founded in evidence.

According to a 2015 article by the American Institute of Medical Sciences & Education, 73 percent of people say they would hire staff that had visible tattoos, and only 4 percent of tattooed or pierced people say they’ve actually faced workplace discrimination.

Body art has become more popular in all professions since the 1990s. In 2016, 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds and 40 percent of 26- to 40-year-olds in the United States had at least one tattoo, the study said. Fourteen percent of Americans had a body piercing (somewhere other than their earlobes) in 2014.