Should You Honor a DNR Tattoo From an Incapacitated Patient?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


January 02, 2018

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm the head of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine. You may have heard about this case. A 70-year-old man showed up at an emergency room in Florida. He had a very elevated blood alcohol level. People intervened and found that he had a big tattoo that read, "Do Not Resuscitate."

He had a long history of many medical problems. He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes. He had many other medical complications. He was definitely difficult to revive, and the question became, should they try to do that? Do you have to follow instructions that are tattooed in large print on someone?

My view is that it's a tough decision because, clearly, somebody who puts "Do Not Resuscitate" across their chest is trying to send a message about their values. On the other hand, there are no reasons to think that a tattoo is in any way legally binding. We don't ask people to honor a contract if they tattoo on their bodies that they're going to love Joe, Rosie, Suzanne, or whomever forever; it's just a decorative, aesthetic choice, and it's not a legal document. No state is going to enforce that tattoo. If you chose to resuscitate him on legal grounds, you'd be okay.

What about ethics? Ethically, I think it isn't enough to rely on a tattoo. Why? You don't know how impulsively the tattoo was put on. You don't know whether he had it put on 12 years ago or within the past month. You can't get information—about whether he changed his mind or not, about the whole thing. Tattoos are not something to be encouraged as a way to communicate values. If there was a chance to resuscitate this man with a high degree of likelihood, then I probably would have done so.

The medical team did ask for an ethics consult, which was fine, and I think that's a good thing to do too, just to get a second opinion. As my view goes, the tattoo isn't binding. What would be binding is if you had the tattoo or, for that matter, a medical bracelet, and then in your wallet or your purse you had an advance directive.

Remember, in talking to patients, that they ought to be encouraged to carry an advance directive, and they certainly can be encouraged, if they have strong views, to wear a bracelet or get a tattoo. That's fine. They need to understand, though, that the tattoo isn't the last word. It's a signal to check something, ask relatives, ask friends, look for that advance directive, and get a confirmation.

A tattoo is no substitute for conversation with your loved ones, friends, and others who are going to be present if you get into trouble or become unconscious, as this man was. You have to have had that conversation so that they know what you want and can back up any bracelet or tattoo that you might have.

Sure, tattoos are interesting, and they're important, but they're signals saying that we have a situation where we had better make sure that we're not doing something that this individual didn't want. The best way to make sure of that is to tell your patients to keep a copy of their advance directive, even if it's a short one that just says, "I don't want to be resuscitated" and it is witnessed and dated.

That's very much confirmatory for what the tattoo says. Most important, have that conversation with them, making it explicit that they need to talk to family, friends, and others. The best way to get your wishes respected is not to tattoo them on your body; it's to talk about them with family and friends.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine. Thank you for watching.

Talking Points: Should You Honor a DNR Tattoo From an Incapacitated Patient?

Issues to consider:

  • Some healthcare professionals contend that some people get a DNR tattoo because they are afraid that their choices will not be respected. According to the Study to Understand Prognoses and Preferences for Outcomes and Risks of Treatments (SUPPORT), physicians understood only 46% of hospitalized, seriously ill patients' preferences to forgo cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).[1]

  • In qualitative interviews, emergency physicians described the emotional and moral distress caused by resuscitating a patient, only to find out afterwards that the patient had a legal, signed, DNR document that was not accessible in the emergency department.[1]

  • Some healthcare professionals contend that DNR orders, like all medical orders, need to be reversible. They contend that if patients are permanently committed to preferences expressed at one time, they may be reluctant to express any interest in forgoing interventions. These professionals cite studies that show that a substantial percentage of patients change their minds regarding preferences for attempted resuscitation.[1]

  • Some healthcare professionals believe that DNR tattoos, and other forms of non–legally binding advance directives, are not trustworthy.[1]

  • Others believe that individuals who have strong preferences against resuscitation should have a form of legally binding documentation that is inseparable from the body.[1]

  • Twelve states, including California and New York, recognize the POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment) form as legally binding orders to forgo CPR and other resuscitation measures.[1]

  • Some healthcare professionals feel that a DNR tattoo expresses "an authentic preference, that what might be seen as caution could also be seen as standing on ceremony, and that the law is sometimes not nimble enough to support patient-centered care and respect for patients' best interests."[2]


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