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Can Doctors Have Tattoos? (Hands, Wrists, Sleeves Or Hidden)

Can Doctors Have Tattoos? (Hands, Wrists, Sleeves Or Hidden)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Tattoos are becoming ever more popular within mainstream culture with a 2015 survey finding that a fifth of all British adults had one.

But, if you have a tattoo, or want to get a tattoo, could this ruin your hopes of working in medicine?

Doctors are allowed to have tattoos. There is no blanket ruling from the GMC so it’s generally regarded as a matter for the individual and their employer to work out. Specific policies vary from trust to trust, but broadly tattoos are acceptable as long as they aren’t offensive or unprofessional.

I know plenty of tattooed doctors. Some with visible tattoos and some without.

Speaking to them, not one of them has ever had anyone have a problem with their appearance. Although, none of them have a tattoo that I think would immediately raise eyebrows.

In this article, I’m going to explore exactly what is and isn’t considered acceptable for a doctor to have on their body, what patients think about tattooed doctors and whether being visibly inked could impact your job prospects within medicine.

What’s The Problem With Doctors And Tattoos?

Although things are changing, there is still a stigma regarding tattoos in the medical profession.

This is undoubtedly down to the type of person who historically got tattoos:

“The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, criminal, or a traitor—a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places.”

– Erving Goffman, 1963

Things have come a long way from just sailors, criminals and slaves being visibly inked though.

About a third (30%) of 25 to 39-year-olds in the UK have a tattoo with one in nine (11%) of Britons admitting to at least one visible one (source).

Although more and more people are choosing to take the plunge and get inked, hospital policies and entrenched biases within the healthcare system can be slow to change.

A doctor getting a tattoo done

There still exists the notion that a doctor should be stern and professional, with an extremely conservative appearance.

Tattoos therefore fly somewhat in the face of this.

They don’t reflect the historical picture of a doctor and so can be met with some resistance from those with more old-school views.

Strict dress codes of the past dictated the stereotypical clean-cut and conventional appearance of a doctor, without any visible piercings or tattoos.

Although things are changing, these views are definitely still out there.

What Do Patients Think About Doctors With Tattoos?

One of the arguments against doctors sporting tattoos is that it undermines patient confidence in the profession and makes the physician appear unprofessional.

Older generations are more likely to hold these more conservative views and this, therefore, compounds the problem as older people make up a disproportionately large portion of the patient population.

However, this stance is frequently discredited by studies investigating the matter.

For example, in this 2018 study, researchers recruited 7 doctors for an observational study based in an emergency department in Pennsylvania.

For 9 months, the doctors wore a combination of fake body piercings or tattoos, or both, or no body art, in addition to their usual hospital scrubs.

After being seen by the doctor, their patients were then quizzed on their satisfaction with the interaction and their opinion of the doctor’s competence.

The results were as follows:

Patients did not perceive a difference in physician competence, professionalism, caring, approachability, trustworthiness or reliability in the setting of exposed body art. Patients assigned top box performance in all domains >75% of the time, regardless of physician appearance.

Often, the patients hadn’t actually realised the doctor had had a tattoo- or if they did it they’d often compliment it or simply ask about the meaning behind it.

“Concerns that body art might undermine perceived professionalism or patient satisfaction with care would seem to be groundless” concluded the researches.

As generations shift and our patients themselves start to become more tattooed, this argument about unprofessionalism will only continue to be eroded.

What Sort Of Tattoos Aren’t Allowed?

Now, all this isn’t to say that anything goes when it comes to working in medicine and body art.

There are still some things that are definitely off the table.

The face is arguably the most contentious location for a tattoo, as backed up by this 2018 study from the University of Dundee.

“If you have tattoos that basically cover your head and face… then I think that… has the potential to significantly impact… your role.”

– Study participant

Hands are another controversial area as they are almost always on display.

There’s a big difference between a neck tattoo that can only be seen from behind and tattoos across a doctor’s fingers that a patient will almost be guaranteed to see.

With no national ruling from the GMC, there is no black and white as to what is and isn’t acceptable.

However, a common sense approach will generally point you in the right direction.

It’s very unlikely that a hospital will want you working as a doctor if you have something horribly offence scrawled across your forehead but much more likely that no one will notice a small wrist tattoo that isn’t overly ostentatious.

Rules vary from trust to trust and individuals are often dealt with on a case-by-case basis so it’s impossible to say exactly what you can and can’t go out and get.

However, if you are planning a potentially controversial tattoo then I’d definitely consider discussing the implications with your employer (or potential employer) first.

Can You Have Tattoos If You Work For The NHS?

Considering the NHS will very likely be your main employer as a health professional in the UK, do they allow tattoos?

The NHS does allow its employees to have tattoos. Although historically regarded in a negative light, with the increasing prevalence of body art NHS policies are slowly shifting to reflect modern public opinion.

Guidance issued by the Department of Health in 2010 stated that the wearing of ‘prominent facial piercings or display tattoos’ was equivalent to ‘poor practice’ as a result of the damage to patient perception they would cause.

A tattoo artist at work

However, NHS England and NHS Improvement updated this guidance in 2020, entirely removing this mention of ‘visible tattoos and prominent facial piercings.’

Although this is a clear shift in official opinion, the trickle-down to individual trust policies is not always as evident.

For example, the uniform and dress code policy for Great Ormond Street Hospital states:

“Tattoos should be covered wherever possible…”

Whereas the policy from Doncaster and Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals admits:

“It is recognised that in today’s society many individuals now have tattoos. Where a staff member has a tattoo in an area that remains exposed when wearing their uniform this must not be offensive.”

Generally, if there’s not a clear-cut answer from a trust’s dress code policy, their HR department will be able to advise on a suitable course of action for staff members with easily visible tattoos.

Can You Have Tattoos in Medical School?

If you’re considering applying to medical school, and have one or more tattoos, you’ll want to know whether this could hold you back in the selection process.

Students in medical school are broadly allowed to have tattoos. In a similar vein to doctors, medical students’ tattoos should not cause offence or be unprofessional if they cannot be covered. The final decision will however always rest with the student’s place of study.

Much like the individual hospital trust policies, each individual university can dictate its own rules on their medical students’ appearance.

If you are applying to medical school this year, and have a tattoo that isn’t visible when wearing smart interview attire, there’s no reason to worry that this will influence your chances of securing an offer.

However, unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any getting round the fact that a visible tattoo will have an impact on your interviewers (whether that be a conscious or subconscious effect).

In my class at medical school, there were plenty of people with tattoos- although I’m not sure if any of them were visible when the student was wearing scrubs.

If you’re considering getting a tattoo, it could be an idea to hold off (if it’s going to be easily visible) until you’ve started at university.

Even if it’s in no way going to be offensive or unprofessional, you’ll otherwise be running the risk that you get a really old-school and conservative panel member for your interview who will turn the others off from giving you an offer.

Is It Harder To Get A Job As A Doctor If You Have Tattoos?

Aside from laser removal, there’s not much you can do to get rid of an unwanted tattoo.

If medicine is your dream career, one thing you need to consider before getting one then is if it’s harder to get a job as a doctor once you have a tattoo.

For non-offensive, or easily coverable tattoos, it should not be any harder for a doctor to get a job with one. However, physical appearance is not a protected characteristic. Therefore, it would be at an employer’s discretion if they decided a doctor’s body ink was unacceptable.

Under the Equality Act of 2010, there are 9 protected characteristics.

These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Physical appearance is not one of them.

Now I’m not saying you’re guaranteed to be discriminated against if you have any sort of tattoo, but it is worth bearing in mind that your appearance will influence (whether that be consciously or unconsciously) your potential employers.

I’m not even saying that every interviewer would see a tattoo as a negative.

But, you do run a very small risk of having a very conservative (and likely older) doctor let their traditional views on tattoos dictate whether or not you should get a job.

I’d suggest that the kind of tattoos that would really impact your job prospects are those that would be blatantly against the NHS’s current guidance i.e. offensive or unprofessional and on an exposed area of the body (e.g. neck).

With how medical recruiting currently works in the UK, you can be pretty sure that one or more simple tattoos will have no impact on your career in medicine.

Final Thoughts

As tattoos continue to gain popularity and acceptance, I think we will start to see more and more doctors with them.

As collective views change on what is and isn’t professional, the tattooed doctor won’t be highlighted in a patient’s mind any more than one with a nose stud.

If you do have tattoos and are currently stressing about what this might mean for getting into medical school or beyond, I wouldn’t worry.

As long as they’re not at the extreme end of the spectrum you should be absolutely fine.

I’ve seen more than a couple of doctors with full sleeves which have in no way held them back in their careers.

And if you’re thinking about getting a tattoo… then I’d say go for it!

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.