Maria Sudekum

KANSAS CITY, Mo.: Tattoos have long served as fashion statements, but a small number of Americans are now relying on them for a more practical, potentially lifesaving purpose: to warn first responders about important medical conditions.

Some medical tattoos are being used to take the place of bracelets that commonly list a person’s allergies, chronic diseases or even end-of-life wishes.

“Bracelets are nice, but something as strong as a tattoo … that is a strong statement,” said Dr. Ed Friedlander, a Kansas City pathologist who has “No CPR” tattooed in the center of his chest, where a paramedic would see it.

Friedlander, 60, got the tattoo to emphasize his decision to forgo CPR if his heart stops.

Medical tattoos don’t appear to carry much legal weight. It’s unclear whether an ambulance crew racing to treat a gravely ill patient could honor a request such as Friedlander’s based on the tattoo alone.

But the markings do offer a simple and permanent way to give rescuers important health details.

Melissa Boyer, of Nashville, Mich., wore bracelets for years to identify her as a diabetic, but she kept losing or breaking them. The 31-year-old decided months ago to get a 3›-inch tattoo on her left forearm that includes the medical symbol and identifies her as a Type 1 diabetic. It also declares her allergies to penicillin and aspirin.

“It’s been 29 years that I’ve had [diabetes], and I went through I-don’t-know-how-many bracelets,” she said. “I went and got the tattoo, and it made life easier.”

The American Medical Association does not specifically address medical tattoos in its guidelines. But Dr. Saleh Aldasouqi, an endocrinologist at Michigan State University, hopes that might change.

Aldasouqi, who has written about the tattoos, has seen them among his diabetic patients and feels they are becoming so popular that the medical profession needs to help guide their development.

“My intention has been to bring this issue to the surface so that medical organizations can have a say in that,” he said. “When you just Google it, you’re going to find hundreds of stories and discussions, but no medical say. So I feel we leave our patients kind of afloat.”

It would be helpful, for instance, if the tattoos were uniform or placed in the same area of the body so responders would know where to look, he said.

“My perspective is that we as physicians need to be involved in this,” he added.

Aldasouqi does not advocate for or against the tattoos, but he says patients and doctors should discuss the idea beforehand.

If one of his diabetic patients sought a tattoo, Aldasouqi would recommend using a licensed tattoo artist and carefully controlling blood sugar during the procedure.