Medical students can have tattoos. And many I know personally do! Whether they’re accepted is dependent on a tattoo’s location, style and the attitudes of colleagues and patients. As well as University and hospital policy.
Growing up an artsy-guy, tattoos are something I’ve considered on a few occasions throughout my life – mainly the backpacking and rock drummer days. Thankfully though, I didn’t go for them in the end. Which kind of works out for me well now in medical school.
But, personal anecdote aside, let’s discuss the issue. Body-ink on medics? Is it a sensible look?
When is it OK for Medical Students to Have Tattoos?
The short answer here is this. Tattoos are a personal choice. At least in Western countries, where they are more culturally accepted, anyway.
For aspiring doctors the case is no different. Whether or not you want to rock tattoos on your skin is dependent on how you feel about them and how much you want them. Although there are exceptions.
Visible tattoos – those placed on the face, neck, hands etc – are far more troublesome in terms of giving medics a respectable “professional” look. But understand here that I’m not talking from my own personal perspective – I happen to like tattoos.
Just on other people rather than myself!
The reason visible tattoos can cause problems then? Because medical students – and physicians – have such outward facing jobs. Where they’re designed to meet and interact with patients on a daily basis.
And take personal responsibility for their care.
What Should You Do About Your Tattoos as a Medical Student?
Unless your tattoos are in a super obvious place – or could be deemed offensive by patients or colleagues that you work with – my general advice is not to worry.
Most of the time, as medical students, we are covered up in casual clothing (coming to and from classes) or clinical clothing. The latter usually involves us having long-sleeved white lab coats (in European med schools at least) or short-sleeved scrubs.
Meaning, more often than not, any tattoos we might have are covered by our clothing anyway. So don’t run any risk of being offensive or having us deemed “unprofessional”.
But for tattoos that aren’t? Wrist, feet or ankle ink for example?
Well, as many tattooed medics will attest, there’s make-up that can be used to cover them up. Especially something like this unisex cover-up from Glossiva. Which I didn’t know was even a thing until now.
When is it Not OK for Medical Students to Have Tattoos?
Here I’d argue, it’s not a good idea to have tattoos if your University is particularly conservative or has a dress-code that explicitly states tattoos must be covered up.
Aside from that, you need to be careful about the culture of the hospital or broader environment of where you go to school. For me personally in Bulgaria, a fairly liberal culture where many younger people have tattoos, it isn’t an issue. But I imagine schools in the Middle East or even some Asian countries might have different opinions.
The way tattoos are received in medical school is completely class or ward-dependent too. Rotations in areas where there is more patient interaction – oncology, geriatrics etc – might prove more problematic in this case. Especially as you’re dealing with older members of the public who might have their own prejudices or opinions about the topic.
Not that having a tattoo makes you less of a doctor. But you can’t control what other people (especially patients) think.
This goes for your lecturers and teachers too. Where the conservative ones might not take kindly to your lack of effort to cover up a visible tattoo.
This could unnecessary friction and complications in an already stressful environment.
Do Patients Care If Doctors/Medical Students Have Tattoos?
In most cases patients, for reasons already explained, don’t have to know if the medical students dealing with them have tattoos or not. Whether they care or not isn’t something that can be generalised.
In countries like the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and most of Europe however, tattoos, among young people at least, are an increasingly common thing. 36% of Americans aged between 18 and 29 have them. And 35% of 30 to 29 year olds have them in the UK.
So patients, in these countries at least, will at least be used to seeing them. But that’s not to say they will be “accepted” however. Especially given healthcare’s conservative image and history.
What to Think About as a Medic Considering a Tattoo
There are a few extra things I feel it’s important to consider in terms whether medical students or doctors can have tattoos. These are as follows:
- Hiring policies (senior doctors – who could be conservative in their views on tattoos – have a large say in hospital hiring). Tattoos could be a detriment in some cases.
- Tattoo’s that might seem a good idea at the time might turn into a point of regret later (especially as you age in your profession and the view of healthcare from the outside)
- If you’re asked to cover up a tattoo be respectful and not resentful. The onus is on creating a professional work environment and making people feel safe. That’s the priority.
That said if you really want a tattoo and don’t care about potential implications? Get one. Just don’t expect to never come under scrutiny or be unconsciously judged.
As for ideas? There are lots of cool med-inspired things I can think of. The Krebs Cycle on your arm would be quite handy for exams. Or a full-on Netters Anatomy style dissection illustration for an arm sleeve.
Send me your ideas!
- Medical students and doctors absolutely can have tattoos (it’s a personal choice)
- There might be a stigma attached or subconscious judgement in particularly conservative schools or working environments (possible in hiring/admissions)
- Most of the time tattoos are covered anyway (very few people have visible body ink)
- Reception to tattoos in a healthcare setting is variable
I’ll refer people to Antonio J. Webb for further food to thought. Especially this discussion where he interviews a medic turned tattoo artist!
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.