The bearded physician: 3 things to know about the 100+ year infection control controversy

For more than a century, physicians and scientific researchers have wrestled with the issue of the bearded physician. Does he pose an infection risk?

In a recent blog published by the Scientific American, Nathaniel Morris, MD, a resident physician in psychiatry at the Stanford (Calif.) University School of Medicine, examines the issue from both a personal and historical perspective.

1. To beard: Dr. Morris opens with a reference to a 1895 letter written by Dr. F.A. Colby and published in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

"I wear a beard," Dr. Colby wrote, "and grant you that probably, like many of my professional brothers, it is a comfort to stroke it and look wise while making a doubtful diagnosis. It is a comfort in the cold, bleak days of winter ... I cultivated mine sedulously after graduation, so that I might lose the title of 'the young doctor.'"

Dr. Morris relates to the 122-year-old sentiment, writing, "As a first-year doctor, I'll sometimes go stretches without shaving on busy clinical rotations. I've noticed patients and staff treat me with more seniority when I'm bearded compared to clean-shaven. My patients no longer ask when I graduated from medical school. Supervising doctors no longer mistake me for a medical student. A bit of facial hair seems to add years of perceived expertise."

2. Not to beard: While simultaneously extoling its virtue, Dr. Colby's 1895 letter also pointed to the beard's germ-carrying potential. In the blog, Dr. Morris cites multiple studies published in various reputable journals from 1967 to 2016 on the subject. The studies, which explored the possible infection risks posed by beards, had varied results. The 1967 study found beards serve as resting grounds for microorganisms and toxins. However, the 2016 study entitled "To Beard or Not to Beard? Bacterial Shedding Among Surgeons" found bearded physicians to be no more an infection risk when wearing surgical masks than their clean-shaven counterparts.

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3. The question: Ultimately, Dr. Morris concludes the issue has not been put to rest, citing Dr. Colby's 1895 question, which still holds pertinence in 2017.

"In these days of microbes, bacilli, and crawling, creeping and flying things that find a resting place for development of diseases in the human system, coming from the air we breathe, liable to assault the weak and strong ... should doctors wear beards?" asked Dr. Colby.

To read Dr. Morris' blog in full, click here.

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