Bring on the tats: Patients don't mind if health-care providers sport body art

A recent study found patients do not mind if their doctors sport tattoos or piercings.

Visible body art helps to build patient rapport, study suggests

According to a recent study, patients do not hold negative perceptions towards physicians with exposed body art. (Shutterstock)

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Ever looked at someone with tattoos and piercings and judged them for it?

What if the person was your health-care provider? Would you still let them continue to treat you?

Most people would, says Holly Stankewicz from St. Luke's University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa. She's one of six authors of a study published last week in the Emergency Medicine Journal.

The U.S. study found there were "no differences in perception of patient care by patients who were treated by physicians with visible body art."

"There's a lot of rules and policies about what physicians can and can't do as far as having visible tattoos or piercings," she says. "There have been physicians who have had a visible tattoo or piercing and gotten in [trouble] for it being visible."

For their research, Stankewicz and her colleagues, surveyed 924 patients over the age of 18 throughout a nine-month study period.

Patients saw physicians with a range of exposed body art. Some had none, while others had either a tattoo or piercings. A few with both.

To ensure consistency, doctors wore a standardized fake tattoo around their arm with clip-on hoop earrings for men and fluorescent coloured nasal studs for women.

The patients answered a range of questions regarding their perception of the "physician's competence, professionalism, caring, approachability, trustworthiness and reliability in the setting of visible body art."

To the researchers' surprise, the patients did not hold negative perceptions toward physicians with exposed body art.

Things like visible name tags, smiling and neat appearance seemed more important to patients.

Stankewicz said the indifferent attitude toward physicians across different age groups surprised her the most.

"There was a physician who had a piercing and tattoo when I went to the room and one of the older patients was like 'I really like your tattoo.' I was really shocked that these older patients were so receptive of it."

Researchers also discovered patients may feel more comfortable with physicians with body art because they felt they had more in common.

While the study focuses on physicians in the emergency department, Stankewicz says she believes the results could be applied to other health-care providers and all professionals in general.

'Positive response'

Chris Donaghue, a heavily tattooed licensed sex therapist, believes clients feel the same way about other care providers. 

"What was really healing and beautiful was every single one of my clients were accepting and had a positive response," says Donaghue, who is trained in clinical psychology and is based in Los Angeles.

"They feel safer with me. They know [I am] the real deal, that [I am] living the truth when [I] tell [them] to make these important decisions to live a better and true [life]."

Donaghue, who has about 20 tattoos covering both his arms, says the study brings a positive spin to a frustrating topic for him and many other physicians who have exposed tattoos and piercings. 

Sex therapist Chris Donaghue, seen here sporting about 20 tattoos, says he is definitely going to get more in the future. (Chris Donaghue/Facebook)

He was not associated with the study.

"Finally there's a study backing up the idea that your professional competence and your ability to do your job and your intellect [are] not determined by your choices to modify your body,"  he says.

Although he is not a medical doctor, Donaghue uses the title "Dr." in referring to himself as a clinician. 

"I sometimes hashtag on my Instagram 'doctors with tattoos' and what's really frustrating is that every time I start typing in that hashtag what also pops up is 'doctors with tattoos aren't doctors.' Which makes me more empowered [to] keep hashtagging 'doctors with tattoos.'"

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  • An earlier version of this story said Chris Donaghue was a doctor. In fact, he is a licensed therapist.
    Jul 10, 2018 3:09 PM ET