Dr. Joseph Sirven: To Shave Or Not To Shave

Published: Tuesday, April 11, 2017 - 7:38am
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To shave or not to shave! That is the latest question in healthcare. Our medical commentator Dr. Joseph Sirven explains.

“Thank you!” my patient blurted out while I was within inches of her face examining her eyes.

“Why do you say thank you?” I responded uncomfortably.

“For not grossing me out with a beard.” She said. “Thank you for shaving.”

Not knowing what to say, I ended with a puzzled “You’re welcome?”

You don’t have to look far for the hottest new apparel in men’s fashion – a beard.

Guys have stopped shaving and doctors are not immune. Yet, with so much attention on infection control and antibiotic drug resistance, can doctors have beards? Lab coats, ties, scrub uniforms have all been under the infection microscope recently but not facial hair. So the question really becomes, are medical staff with beards safe for patients?
This has become a flash point between surgeons, nurses and hospital quality organizations as to what is safe apparel for the patient. Can doctors have beards and how far must they go to cover them up? 

Clinical studies on the issue have led to surprising results. One study of orthopedic surgeons found that bearded surgeons did not shed more bacteria any more than clean-shaven ones if the surgeon was masked or hooded as required in all ORs.

This all came to a head at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston where they actually compared the bacterial ecology of their bearded and clean shaven medical staff. And spoiler alert: problematic bacteria were more common in the clean-shaven group.

The researchers suspect that cuts occurring during shaving may harbor bacteria as opposed to our less furry doctors. As a result, the American College of Surgeons, and several other groups have decided to study the issue further and take a stand.

For me, I‘ve been clean-shaven all my life, but if one day you come to see me and I’m bearded or masked, then you’ll know how this policy battle turned out.

Dr. Joseph Sirven is the chairman of neurology at the Mayo Clinic.