July 22, 2009 | | Comments 1
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Generational dress code gaps: Tattoos and piercings uncovered

In the nursing world, first impressions are everything. How patients perceive their nurses affects how patients interact with them throughout their entire hospital stay. But what happens when a 23-year-old female nurse with visible arm tattoos and a nose piercing walks in to a patient’s room to take vital signs and the patient is obviously uncomfortable by the body art?

Such interactions and concerns are increasingly common. Body art and piercings are no longer the preferred form of expression solely for rebels and misfits. A study recently conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology found that 48% of American workers ages 18 to 29 have a tattoo or something other than their earlobe pierced.

But what is largely considered acceptable to one generation, is still shocking to many others. This is one reason why many facilities have dress codes in place; to ensure that patients feel comfortable in their surroundings and with their healthcare providers, whether tattooed or not.

Organizations such as St. Mark’s Hospital in Salk Lake City, Florida Hospital Memorial System in Ormond Beach, FL, and Cleveland Clinic in OH, require staff to cover any tattoos they may have. If tattoos cannot be covered by an article of clothing, nurses are asked to cover the body art with a band aid. But some people believe asking nurses, doctors, and students to cover up body art is unfair.

In an interview with OffBeatInk.com, a Web site for tattoo aficionados, Myrna Armstrong, professor and dean at Texas Tech School of Nursing, suggested it is hypocritical for patients to stereotype nurses with body art, when as part of their profession, nurses are expected not to judge their patients.

Although tattoos and body piercings may make some patients uncomfortable, especially the elderly, they may help to establish relationships with a younger patient. Some tattoos mark a turning point in the nurse’s life, or could be in memory of a loved one.

Do you think the type of body art makes a difference? Does your facility have a policy that requires tattoos and piercings to be covered? Are tattoos and piercings viewed as unprofessional or distracting? How does your facility handle a patient who is uncomfortable with a nurse who has a visible piercing or tattoo?

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Sarah Kearns About the Author: Sarah is an Editorial Assistant in the patient safety group at HCPro, Inc. She contributes to two monthly newsletters; Briefings on the Joint Commission and Briefings on Patient Safety, and manages four e-zines; Accreditation Connection, AHAP Staff Challenge, Nurse Manager Weekly, and Healthcare Training Weekly. She also helps research new products for the patient safety and nursing market. She graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2008 where she earned her bachelor's degree in English.

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  1. Our hospital holds the same approach to tatoos, covering them either with clothing or bandaids. We do not allow piercings, other than ears. I think these ideas will be challenged as body art becomes more the norm. We may have to evaluate more the content of body art, is it offensive. It seems a shame to eliminate someone from your staff that may have something that can’t be covered, for instance on their hand. As we explore diversity that will need to be explored not only culturally but also generationally as we make policies for our workforce.

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