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Medical Alert Tattoos

Friday, February 17, 2017

When I was a kiddo, I was fascinated by my Grandpa's tattoos.  As a sailor in the Merchant Marines in the early 1900s, the blueish, black ink on his arm was the emblem of the organization.  (I think he may have had one that read "Mom" too.)  He was the only person I knew with a tattoo and I found it terribly exotic.  Overtime, the social norms of my generation told me tattoos were for sailors and military types alone.  Nowadays, those norms have changed once again as people from all walks of life are getting inked up with everything from Disney characters to Bible verses.  It was not surprising to me then when my daughter said she wanted a tattoo.   It may be surprising to you, however, her reason why.  My daughter is a Type 1 Diabetic.  As an athlete and incredibly active individual, she found medical alert bracelets and necklaces to be cumbersome.  In addition, the jewelry often broke.  She, therefore, opted for a medical alert tattoo, in her case the words "Type 1 Diabetes"  strategically placed on her left forearm where an EMT would notice it when taking a pulse or putting in an IV.   She has no other tattoos and it is very easy to read.  Medical alert tattooing is becoming more common for various conditions such as allergies, MS, and epilepsy.   This practice, however, is not without controversy.  Issues exist regarding lack of regulation, consistency, placement, and lack of awareness on the part of medical professionals.

Medic alert tattoos aren't standardized in terms of location, appearance or size.  All you have to do is Google images of medical tattoos and you will see that there are designs ranging from easy to read and understand to "artsy" and unclear.  Furthermore, some medic alert tattoos might be lost in a forest of other tattoos if a person is really "tatted up." One of the biggest objections has to do with legitimacy.  Medic alert bracelets have a reputation for being a legitimate form of medical communication.  Tattoos, on the other hand, are not so clear.  If only the word diabetes is in a circle, does that mean the person has diabetes or is the person paying tribute to a loved one who has diabetes?

And then there is the question of medical professionals, their awareness, and what is lawful.  A 2014 article in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services states, "certainly tattoos that give information about a patient’s medical history, such as an allergy or chronic medical condition like diabetes or a seizure disorder, can be helpful to EMS."  That being said a tattoo giving directions such DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) is not legally binding.  If a medical professional sees the tattoo, it may prompt the EMT or doctor to  initiate questions of the patient and family about whether the patient does in fact have an actual and valid advance directive in place.  The article continues to instruct EMTs that  'The key is to consider a tattoo with supposed medical information as just one piece of information to be factored into the overall assessment and treatment of the patient. Always “treat the patient and not the tattoo.” The tattoo can—at best—only give you information about a potential condition you need to consider, like diabetes or a seizure disorder. A critical point to remember is that there’s a difference between a tattoo that purports to give medical instructions that an EMS provider shouldn’t follow (such as a DNR tattoo) and a tattoo that could provide potentially useful information about the patient’s past medical history that may be helpful in the course of providing care to the patient."

As medical alert tattoos become more mainstream, regulations or at least recommendations from professional medical organizations may follow.  But at this point, due to lack of regulation and an uncertainty as to whether medical professionals will read or pay attention to a tattoo, many healthcare organizations are still suggesting that patients either wear a medical alert bracelet or carry medical information in their wallets even if they have a tattoo.  In addition, informing co-workers, family members, and friends about your condition is important in case you cannot communicate during an emergency.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at URMC Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for articles,  you can contact her at or 585-335-4327.  

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