Tattoos have been around for a very, very long time. This much we know, but as more and more young people are diagnosed with diabetes, tattoo art that often spoke in rebellious terms has found a new meaning.
By inking the universal medical symbol on their bodies, diabetics like Samantha Graham Vancouver, British Columbia, have turned to body art as an alternative to wearing medical ID jewelry that is often used to inform medical personnel and others of their condition during an emergency.
“I thought it was the perfect idea because a tattoo would be much harder to miss than a simple alert bracelet if I was ever in the situation of not being able to communicate,” Graham says.
But not everyone believes tattoos are the healthiest way for people with diabetes to communicate their condition. Todd Soard, president of the Florida Association of Professional EMTs and Paramedics, says a tattoo will not be the first thing a paramedic looks for when transporting a patient.
“It is no doubt going to be missed,” he says. “Most EMS personnel are not trained to look for a tattoo because a tattoo is a tattoo!”
Dr. Michael Zbiegien, medical director of emergency services for the Children’s Hospital at Sunrise Medical Center in Las Vegas, agrees. “There’s not a lot of body searching on the street; [EMTs] don’t have time.”
But he says that because patients’ immediate needs are met by EMTs, doctors may have more time to seek out tattoos once they reach the emergency room.
“Most physicians would honor a medical tattoo provided that [it] wouldn’t cause additional risk,” Zbiegien says. But, he advises, “You want to put it in a place where we’re going to see it quickly.”
Of course, tattoos are not the only option. Instead of a tattoo, Soard recommends that people opt for a tried-and-true solution: wearing a medical ID bracelet. Medical ID bracelets that prominently feature the medical caduceus emblem can quickly notify emergency responders of a patient’s condition. Information engraved on the bracelet communicates vital information to EMTs without needing the patient’s response.
Soard says first-response teams, as well as doctors, are trained to search for these items and are “not going to be looking all over [patient's] bodies for a tattoo. We don’t have time for that.”
Despite the numerous safety benefits of wearing a personalized medical ID bracelet, they are commonly discarded by the young adult demographic set because of how they look. While designs and styles for these medical IDs have been updated over the years, there has always been a negative stigma associated with them being ugly.
“I bought a Medic Alert necklace and didn’t wear it when I went out with friends, as I didn’t believe it looked very classy,” admits newly diagnosed diabetic Hayley Jones of the West Midlands, U.K. Instead, Jones designed her own medical tattoo with “a feminine twist” and had it inked onto her wrist this year.
If you are getting a tattoo specifically as a medical alert, Justin Noland of American Medical ID recommends, “keep it simple, direct and on a place that an EMT is most likely to see, like the wrist. The more fluff and design that is added will make it look more like a memorial tattoo or one to raise awareness, not one to provide information in an emergency.”