The answer to that question may seem obvious – but it isn’t. The last 40 years or so have seen a huge growth in people making their physical ailments and desires known by way of tattoo, but the question of whether those tattoos have any legal validity or not has remained unclear.
A pathologist quoted in the Huffington Post last year himself has “NO CPR” tattooed in the centre of his chest, to indicate his wishes to any medical professional that may see it, but the same article states that, in the U.S. at least, medical tattoos carry very little legal weight, and that paramedics would likely still perform CPR on the patient, unless a legal “do not resuscitate” document was also found. Lawyer Cheryl David agrees: her website advises that no American states have laws that address medical tattoos, and that a medic would most likely err on the side of caution. An American Paramedics group takes that statement even further, making clear that they are not trained to look for medical tattoos, and wouldn’t even begin trying to interpret one in the case of an emergency – DNR could mean “do not resuscitate”, for example, but it could also be your husband’s initials, or your favourite band. Despite this all sounding like a very resounding “no” to the question of legal validity, it’s unfortunately not that straightforward. Medic alert tattoos have become common enough that some doctors are actually recommending them to patients – particularly diabetics, and those with life-threatening allergies. Dr. Aldasouqi of Michigan State, who has written about and long been interested in medical tattooing, admits that the guidelines are unclear, and expresses concern that ignoring this trend “leave(s) our patients kind of afloat”. He is working to bring together the medical and tattoo professions to develop a legally recognized standard for these sorts of tattoos so that American medics will know what to look for.
As for Canada, finding even vague information proves difficult. Canadian MedicAlert Foundation CEO Robert Ridge last year told the CBC “it doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but there’s a few issues that we have with it”, reiterating concerns that paramedics are not trained to look for them. As for their legal status, no one seems to know for sure. Different medical associations have various views, and there is no reference to medical tattoos in Canadian law. Tattoo artists, also likely to err on the side of caution, will gladly give you a medical tattoo, but will advise that they do not replace legal documents.
So, what’s the story? Will your “diabetic” tattoo be taken seriously or not? What about the biggie – “DNR”? The general consensus seems to be that if a medical professional happens to see it, and if it is extremely clear and matches what would be found on a MedicAlert bracelet, and if it simply advises of a condition, rather than asking you not be treated, it might be respected. When it comes to “no CPR” or “DNR” orders, however, the only ink that matters is that on a legal document, signed by both you and your doctor.