Just over two years ago, I had my nose pierced.
I never did post that I got the piercing. I guess it did not seem like massive news then. But I’ve been seeing a lot of searches for “doctors and piercings” directing to my blog, and I figured a follow-up was in order.
Interestingly, if you read the posts above, very few people were supportive of the idea – and that was what made the decision more difficult. People I really respected (and STILL respect) figured it would be unprofessional.
My parents had gradually grown used to the idea (I first mentioned it fresh out of high school), so they left the decision up to me. [My dad did say that if I drank a lot of water and jumped up and down, he feared I would leak from all my piercings. I don’t have that many, honestly: two in each ear and a belly piercing.]
Why would I make a decision when so many people I value were against the idea? I think perhaps sometimes we have to make a decision based on our beliefs, and not others’. And this was a pretty harmless autonomous decision, knowing that I could remove the piercing at any point. Which I probably will, in a decade or so.
Did patients notice?
At that point I had spent a year in the clinical phase of medical training. I strongly suspected that few people would actually notice the piercing – and fewer would have anything against it.
So, my first patient of 2012 was stylish, rather elderly and I judged her as being pretty conservative in terms of speech and appearance. (Actually, my first rotation was forensic pathology, so she was my first live patient of the year. Anyway.)
Halfway during our consultation she noticed my piercing, inhaled deeply and exclaimed, “Oh, what a sweet little gem you have in your nose! Did it hurt?” She was very interested, told me that she would have had one in her youth if she knew it was even possible, and then we returned to our consultation.
I’ve had a few repetitions of that conversation, with variations of “My grandchild has so many piercings I worry she’ll rip off an ear” to “My daughter is so scared of needles she won’t even have her ears pierced” to “I was so worried when my grandson had his ears pierced but he’s still as wonderful as always.”
What did other health workers say?
So far, not a single doctor at my training site has made any mention of my piercing. (I checked: we don’t have anything against it in the official dress-code.) I’ve spent a good amount of time in the offices of our dean, vice-deans and our course-convener, what with student government and Semester at Sea, and not once did they mention anything either. And if anybody had the clout to make me remove it, it would be them.
Perhaps the biggest issue I have had is little kids who are at that stage of grabbing anything that catches their eyes. Then again, I’ve always had to keep them from my glasses too.
One day I was having lunch with some friends and relatives. Among them were a good few medical professionals – some retired and some young professionals. A retired surgeon noticed the piercing and was so surprised, because I had had the piercing for almost a year at the time and he had seen me regularly. But this was the first time he noticed it. I was very worried, but it turned out he thought it was “sweet”.
Another specialist though, one of the younger individuals there, did not like it. Because we know each other quite well by now, he was forthright about it, and we had a civilised discussion about it. That was the only person who openly disliked it, and it was okay with me. I did find it interesting that the most intense discussion I had about it was not an old, traditional physician but a younger doctor. It was a refreshing discussion, actually, but I’m not letting the piercing close up just yet.
What the literature says
The Rehman study in 2005, What to wear today? Effect of doctor’s attire on the trust and confidence of patients concluded that patients overwhelmingly preferred doctors who conform to their idea of professionalism (specifically: professional attire and white coat). Many cite this as proof that the apparent cop-out answer of “it doesn’t really matter what they wear, as long as they are competent” is just that: a cop-out.
But here is my take: these studies’ methodology is to show respondents pictures of physicians in different dress and style. Now read that again: they do not expose the respondents to the physicians. They are not given a mock consultation (obviously, that would be time-consuming). So essentially, this methodology requires of a respondent to judge the picture solely on appearance.
But we know that in a real-life patient experience, this is not the only means patients use to assess whether they are comfortable with their physician. The way the physician greets them. The way the physician talks to them. Whether the physician answers their questions thoroughly. Whether the physician answers a ringing cell phone in the middle of the consultation without an apology.
I don’t mean to discredit the value of first impressions. I just think that there is more than simply appearance that contributes to a first impression, because the human brain is complex enough to handle complex perception.
When I was in Barcelona this year, I visited the Hospital Universitari de Bellvitge briefly, and I saw a big intimidating group of people in white coats (they looked young, so med students or residents? I don’t know) and there were quite a few of them with a number of piercings. I wish I had stopped to talk with them about their piercings and the perception of them in Spain, but after four months of putting myself “out there” and gathering the courage to have conversations and meet people, I was just exhausted. Darn.
I got my piercing and I have not regretted it, but I would not pose this as a cut-and-dry solution to medical students. It is imperative to do your own consultation with mentors and family members, and it is important to make a decision in keeping with your context.
Any new piercing takes time getting used to. If you have done your “research” and decided to go ahead with it, I suggest getting the piercing done at the beginning of summer break. That allows time for the redness and pain to go away (wash with sterile lukewarm water and coarse sea salt), and allows you time to get used to it and even remove it if you don’t like it. A healthy piercing also allows for the jewelry to be removed for short periods of time if you really need to do so for whatever reason. A “fresh” piercing can’t do this.
Just don’t think you absolutely have to remove your piercings just because you are going to medical school. Unless, of course, the dress code strictly prohibits it. That, friends, is a whole new can of worms.
Disclaimer: this blog neither encourages nor discourages piercings; it encourages informed decision making. There are risks attached to any piercing, and you should consult your doctor for this information.