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Nurses with pink hair and tattoos? Why this hospital system is changing the rules

"Sometimes people think only criminals have tattoos," one nurse said. "I have a master's degree. I can take care of you."
/ Source: TODAY

Picture this: You're sitting in an exam room and a nurse walks in to greet you. She's wearing hospital scrubs and her arms are bare except for sleeves of tattoos.

Sound familiar? Probably not. But it might be a more commonplace scenario as hospitals across the country ease up on longtime dress code restrictions, including one stating any visible tattoos must be covered.

Indiana University Health, which includes 16 hospitals, recently announced that it ditched its 50-page dress code in favor of a 5-page document earlier this year. In the process, they've nixed rules that stated nurses can't have unnatural hair colors or have visible tattoos. Elizabeth Dunlap, chief human resources officer, and Michelle Janney, chief nurse executive, explained that the policy, which went into effect in April, is part of a larger focus on "moving from a rules-driven organization to a values-driven culture."

And so far, employees have welcomed the change.

"We had one team member who was very excited about being able to dye her hair pink in support of breast cancer awareness," Dunlap told TODAY Health. "It was something she always wanted to do, but it was against our dress code policy because it wasn't a natural color, so when we lifted that requirement, she was excited."

Another employee who has tattoos on her forearms was finally able to switch to a department she'd always wanted to work for, but which requires nurses to "scrub up," meaning she would have to roll up her sleeves and reveal her tattoos, which was previously not allowed.

Many people are surprised to learn the strict dress codes some nurses face. Last year a Facebook post from an Ohio man went viral when he expressed shock and "confusion" about hospital policies regarding tattoos, explaining that his own mom is a nurse with tattoos. "My mother has more tattoos than I can count and it has never, ever affected her work ethic," he wrote in the post, which was shared more than 125,000 times.

While workplaces in general may have become more accepting of tattoos and casual dress codes in recent years, hospitals have been slower to adapt. But that may soon change: Late last year, the Mayo Clinic reportedly announced that it was implementing a new dress code in 2018, which would allow nurses and physicians to have visible tattoos.

And inked-up caretakers are hopeful that other workplaces will do the same.

"I have tattoos on both arms, all the way up to my shoulders, all the way down to my wrists," Nacole Riccaboni, a critical care nurse at Florida Hospital in Orlando, told TODAY. "So my entire arms are covered, and that's definitely something that's been a barrier. I work at a hospital where tattoos need to be covered and I think it's just sad, because mine are about my family and my son, and they're symbols of hope to me. I would love to be able to show those to patients, because sometimes they need those symbols of hope."

As she sees it, tattoos are a way to connect with people.

"I work in the ICU (intensive care unit)," Riccaboni continued. "You definitely meet people who aren't in great conditions, and I see their tattoos and I ask them what they mean to them. There's always a story there."

Riccaboni, who wears a long-sleeve shirt to work every day, added that she understands why her workplace doesn't allow visible tattoos. But she hopes that as more people get tattoos, stereotypes about them will fade.

"Sometimes people think only criminals have tattoos," she said. "I have a master's degree. I can take care of you."

Sometimes people think only criminals have tattoos. I have a master's degree. I can take care of you.

Kenzie Dierschke, a speech language pathology assistant in Big Lake, Texas, doesn't see a problem with healthcare workers who have visible tattoos: "They have the same education as someone who doesn't have a tattoo," she told TODAY.

While Dierschke now works in a school, she used to work in a hospital, and no one there ever said much about the rose tattoo she has on her arm.

"Honestly, I don't even know what their policy was, but the more I worked there, I realized the secretary in my department showed her arm tattoos, and I started showing mine, and no one made a big deal about it," Dierschke said.

Caitlin Hansel, a pediatric nurse who works at a hospital in Indianapolis, told TODAY in an email that she has a few tattoos on her arm, which are visible at work.

"I actually get a lot of compliments and questions about my tattoos," Hansel said. "I have never had anyone say anything negative."

Not all workplaces are so lax. Dunlap and Janney aren't aware of any other hospital networks that have made policy changes similar to theirs, but they do believe it's something more will consider in the future. And they're already seeing the benefits, from a company perspective.

"We've seen a significant increase in nursing applications, a significant reduction in our vacancy rate," Janney said. "Our first-year nurse turnover rate is trending at about half the national average. So we're seeing our metrics move in a really positive direction."

"This message — that we trust you — it lifts (employees') spirits in a meaningful way," she added.