No consensus on question: OK for doctors to have beards?

A pediatrician and his patient
Whether male doctors should wear beards is an unresolved controversy. Image: Getty/Shironosov

It’s a long-debated question with no clear consensus: Should doctors have beards?

The question was asked as far back in 1895 by a doctor who wrote a letter to a medical journal and noted the comfort he got stroking his beard and looking wise while making a doubtful diagnosis, wrote Nathaniel P. Morris, M.D., a resident in psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in a blog post for Scientific American.

Like that doctor who noted his facial hair made him look older, Morris said when he sports a beard, he doesn’t get mistaken for a medical student or asked by patients when he graduated.

But the controversy over beards is the concern about their hygiene and that’s an unresolved question. The Association of periOperative Registered Nurses raised the question again when it updated its guidelines last year calling for stricter hair covering in operating rooms, including facial hair.

However, the American College of Surgeons disagreed and released its own guidelines for operating room attire. The organization said it is acceptable for “only a limited amount of hair” on the nape of the neck and “modest sideburns” to be left uncovered by surgeons wearing skullcaps.

“Healthcare-associated infections remain a pressing issue, but the jury is still out on whether beards truly pose a risk to patients and colleagues in clinical care,” Morris writes.

And it isn’t just hair that has caused controversy. Nearly every aspect of a doctor’s attire—from white coats, stethoscopes and neckties—have raised questions about hygiene concerns, he said.

With all the pressing issues facing the medical professions, doctors and nurses get fired up about the question of what types of clothing healthcare workers should wear to work and what attire looks professional. For instance, Geisinger Medical Center in Pennsylvania last year decided to ban nurses from wearing leggings and t-shirts to work. Instead they must now wear pewter gray and white scrubs embroidered with “Registered Nurse” and the system logo.