New Research Reveals Need for Doctors to Know About Medical Tattoos

Friday, May 15, 2009 8:00 am EDT


"I couldn’t believe the wealth of information about it online - blogs, discussion forums, photos, you name it"

More people are turning to a new trend to let others know about their medical condition – tattooing. A case report presented today at the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) 18th Annual Meeting & Clinical Congress shed light on this new phenomenon, while urging discussion from the medical community.

The report’s primary author, Saleh A. Aldasouqi, MD, FACE, first discovered medical tattooing when Todd Walsh, a type 1 diabetes patient, came in for an evaluation and management of his diabetes. While performing a physical examination, Dr. Aldasouqi noticed a medical alert with the word ‘Diabetic’ tattooed on Walsh’s right forearm, just above the wrist.

Walsh has lived with diabetes since he was 22 months old. Growing up, he wore medical alert bracelets. While playing sports and other activities in his teens, the bracelets often broke. As he got older, Walsh began wearing the 14k medical medallion around his neck.

“I wore the medallion for ten years,” Walsh said. “But found that I needed to replace the pendant about every two and a half years.”

He figured each time he replaced the pendant, it cost about 150 dollars. He began looking for a more permanent solution - and settled on a tattoo.

“After trying all kinds of less efficient medical alerts like bracelets and necklaces, I found that a tattoo was a more permanent solution to let everyone know that I have diabetes,” Walsh said. “For me, it was simply a cost-saving method.”

Walsh told Dr. Aldasouqi that he had decided to get the tattoo on his own, without consulting with his physician first. He had it done at a professional tattoo parlor, where clean needles and tools were reportedly used.

Dr. Aldasouqi was surprised a few weeks later when he encountered a different patient –another well-educated, young man with long-standing type 1 diabetes- with a similar tattoo.

Intrigued, Dr. Aldasouqi began researching medical literature to learn about suggested guidelines for medical tattooing. To his surprise, he found no such guidelines or consensus from the medical community. So, he turned to the Internet.

“I couldn’t believe the wealth of information about it online - blogs, discussion forums, photos, you name it,” Dr. Aldasouqi said. “On the net, patients with diabetes, parents of children with diabetes, and various other interested parties actively debated the pros and cons of this practice.”

One of the most obvious benefits of medical tattooing is for identification purposes in an emergency situation, especially for patients with diabetes, when a patient may be incapacitated—particularly in the case of hypoglycemic coma. Tattooing allows them to “take defense of their inpatient care,” Dr. Aldasouqi said. However, it also poses some health concerns – ones he feels the medical community should weigh in on.

Obvious concerns include the transmission of communicable diseases (such as Hepatitis and HIV infections), if not performed by licensed professionals, using clean needles and tools. Other concerns center on inciting infections at the site of tattooing, especially in patients with poor diabetic control who are apt to have impaired immunity to infections.

Less common problems include allergic reactions to tattoo dyes, and problems arising from interference/or injury resulting from the red dye (if it contains iron) during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

“Like it or not, tattooing for purposes of medical alerts is a phenomenon that is now occurring,” Aldasouqi said. “It’s imperative that the medical community take note and that, perhaps, appropriate regulation of the practice be proposed, especially for patients with diabetes.”

Once that happens, Dr. Aldasouqi hopes that patients and their doctors can sit down, analyze the risks and benefits, and make an informed decision together.

To download a photo of Todd Walsh's tattoo, please click here.

Audio from the press briefing is available online here.

About AACE

AACE is a professional medical organization with more than 6,200 members in the United States and 92 other countries. Founded in 1991, AACE is dedicated to the optimal care of patients with endocrine problems. AACE initiatives inform the public about endocrine disorders. AACE also conducts continuing education programs for clinical endocrinologists, physicians whose advanced, specialized training enables them to be experts in the care of endocrine diseases such as diabetes, thyroid disorders, growth hormone deficiency, osteoporosis, cholesterol disorders, hypertension and obesity.

For more information, contact


American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists
Greg Willis, 904-353-7878, ext. 147.