Getting a tattoo can be an exceedingly personal experience. You can get pieces done that represent who you are as a person, tell the story of your life, be art that you simply think is awesome to look at, or you can get tattoos that could potentially save your life or give doctors important information.
Medical alert tattoos are becoming more popular these last few years. Everything from permanent medical alert bracelets describing medical conditions like epilepsy, asthma, or food allergies, all the way across the spectrum to full blown "do not resuscitate" orders meant for to ensure the end of life wishes of patient.
No one knows how many people have actually received these medical alert tattoos because there are no organizations that actually track them.
One verified case is that of Chris Miller, who decided that he would get a medical alert tattoo. The 42-year-old journalist from Edmonton, Canada has Type-1 diabetes and got a tattoo sharing the information, just in case there is ever a medical emergency where he is unconscious or worse.
Miller was diagnoses as a type-1 diabetic when he was only three years old, and had always worn a medic alert bracelet.
"I've always worn medical alert bracelets and, over the years, they break from time to time," says Miller. "I just thought a tattoo made sense because it's permanent." He added that getting a tattoo wasn't that strange a concept for him. "I'm sort of used to needles."
Getting a "medical alert" tattoo might not be the best option at this point, because doctors and emergency medical personal aren't actually trained to look for them, there is no standard practice about where they should be placed on the body.
Dr. Mark Reiter has never seen one in over ten years working in emergency medicine. Because there are no standard procedures for such things, he says that there can be mixed messages.
"If I saw somebody who came in and had a tattoo that said 'diabetes,' I'd think that this guy probably has diabetes, but who knows?" Reiter says. "Maybe it was that his mom had diabetes, and he was trying to make a statement."
But what happens when someone comes in with a tattoo that contains important medical related information?
Doctors in Florida found themselves facing a pretty intense ethical question because of a medically related tattoo. A 70-year-old man was brought into the emergency room with a high blood-alcohol level. He was also suffering from diabetes and lung disease. Inked across his chest were the words, "Do Not Resuscitate," and the tattoo also included a permanent signature.
The doctors were unsure of how to proceed because it was clear that if the man was willing to go this far to make sure that doctors saw the message, it was likely he was quite serious about it.
Initially, doctors were going to ignore the tattoo and give the man treatment, but after consulting with ethics experts, they were advised to honor the tattoo as an official DNR. The Florida Department of Health ended up finding the man's official DNR a little later on as well.
Even after the man's death, this particular case will continue to be studied by medical professionals and ethics experts. It sets a dangerous precedent for people that might get these tattoos but not have legal binding orders as such.
University of Toronto professor, Bernard Dickens, a specialist is bioethics said that each tattoo should be treated differently depending on the person.
“If it was a sudden, unexpected thing, and an ordinary patient would be resuscitated, then he probably should be,” Dickens said. “If he had a chronic impairment that he knew eventually would be a cause of death, then the so-called directive would have to respected.”
How do you feel about medical tattoos potentially replacing medic-alert bracelets?