Patients don’t care if doctors have tattoos or piercings, study finds

While patients prefer a doctor in a traditional white coat, they apparently don’t care if their doctors have tattoos or piercings.

study recently published in the Emergency Medicine Journal involving 924 patients at a Pennsylvania trauma center found that tattoos or non-traditional piercings didn’t impact patients’ perceptions of doctors’ professionalism, competence, approachability or knowledge.

Seven emergency department doctors, both men and women, took part in the nine-month long study. They variously wore fake body piercings or tattoos, or both—or no body art—in addition to their usual hospital scrubs.

Patients were blinded to the true purpose of the survey. After encounters with the doctors, patients were asked to take a survey, in which they were told to discuss how the hospital could better provide courteous and competent medical care—rather than share what they thought of doctors with visible tattoos and piercings. Patients were specifically asked what they thought of their physician's competence, professionalism, caring attitude, approachability, trustworthiness and reliability, by rating these qualities on a five-point scale.

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At least when it comes to emergency room physicians, patients didn’t rate doctors differently when they sported tattoos and piercings, according to the study published in Emergency Medicine Journal.

Concerns that body art might undermine perceived professionalism or patient satisfaction didn't pan out, they added. As tattoos and piercings become increasingly common, it’s likely those entering the medical field today are more likely to have body art than doctors of a previous generation.

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"Despite this, dress codes and institutional policies at most hospitals still prohibit medical professionals from having visible body art,” the study authors wrote.

While past studies have found patients said doctors’ tattoos or piercings were unprofessional, those studies used photographs of providers with and without body art and no attempt to blind patients to the purpose of the study. This study differed in that it asked patients to rate their doctor after a clinical encounter and patients were unaware of the true purpose.

Interestingly, a recent study found that patients do link what a doctor is wearing to their satisfaction with care. Patients preferred formal attire with a white coat for doctors in both primary care settings and hospital settings.