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What is the Medical ID Symbol and Where Did It Come from?

22nd May 2024

A medical ID symbol is a universally recognised emblem which is used to alert first responders and paramedics to critical medical information in an emergency. All of our medical IDs feature the internationally recognised medical ID symbol of a snake and staff, also known as the staff of Asclepius, within the six-pointed star of life. This symbol was adopted by the World Medical Association in 1964 alongside their recommendation that it be worn continuously by persons having any of four broad classes of problems:

  • Health conditions that can produce an emergency, including heart patients, particularly those susceptible to attacks of angina pectoris, diabetics, epileptics, scuba divers and those who work in increased atmospheric pressure and people who breathe through tracheostomy tubes;
  • Untoward reactions to medications used in emergencies;
  • Failure to use needed medicines following an emergency including patients taking corticosteroids, insulin, thyroid medications or anticoagulants;
  • Inability to communicate including patients with aphasia, young children and the elderly.

Most paramedics and first responders are trained to look for medical alert IDs at the major pulse points (wrists and neck). Using the internationally recognised medical symbol makes it easy for responders to identify your medical alert ID from normal jewellery.

But where did this internationally recognised symbol come from?


The emblem of a staff entwined by two snakes with wings at the top is called the “Caduceus” symbol and has long been used in pharmacy and healthcare company logos. The symbol is based on Greek mythology, whereby Hermes threw his staff at two snakes in an attempt to end a fight between them. The snakes stopped their battle and wrapped themselves around the staff. This combination of staff and two snakes became the symbol for resolving disputes peacefully. In time, it also became a mark of commerce.

According to the British Science Museum Group, The term ‘caduceus’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘herald’s wand’ and refers to the staff carried by the ancient Greek god Hermes – called Mercury by the ancient Romans. He was a messenger of the gods, protector of travellers, shepherds and merchants, as well as the protector of thieves, liars and gamblers.

Rod of Asclepius

Another medical ID symbol which is widely recognised is the ‘Rod of Asclepius. The symbol contains a staff with one snake which is an attribute of another important Greek god: Asclepius. Several sources claim that Asclepius was a physician who became recognised as the god of healing with a cult that spread in the 5th century BCE. Hospital-like sanctuaries were built in his name throughout Greece as areas of worship and refuge for the ill. Asclepius is usually represented as an elderly, bearded man, leaning on a staff with a single snake coiled around it, known as the ‘Rod of Asclepius’ or the ‘Staff of Asclepius’. 

The main difference between the caduceus and the staff of the god of medicine is the number of snakes. The staff of Asclepius, which figures one snake, was soon associated with healing, becoming, throughout the ages, an established emblem of medicine and curative methods.

Star of Life

Historically, the US emergency medical services used a red (sometimes orange) cross with four bars but fell foul of the International Committee of the Red Cross Committee which had trademarked the symbol. They circumvented this by using a blue four-bar cross on a white background.

The Star of Life symbol was originally designed by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to authenticate or certify ambulances, paramedics and other emergency services personnel and was adapted from the medical identification symbol of the American Medical Association.

The six branches of the Star of Life symbolise the six main tasks executed by emergency medical services and rescuers throughout the emergency chain of care.

  1. Detection - The first rescuers on the scene, usually civilians or those involved in the incident, observe the scene, understand the problem, identify the dangers to themselves and others, and take appropriate measures to ensure their safety on the scene (environmental, chemicals, etc.).
  2. Reporting - The call for professional help is made and dispatch is connected with the victims, providing emergency medical dispatch.
  3. Response - The first rescuers provide first aid and immediate care to the extent of their capabilities.
  4. On-scene care - emergency medical services (EMS) practitioners (paramedics, ambulance staff or other first responders) arrive and provide immediate care to the extent of their capabilities on-scene.
  5. Care in transit - The EMS practitioners proceed to transfer the patient to a hospital or specialised care and provide medical care during transportation.
  6. Transfer to definitive care - Appropriate specialised care is provided at the hospital.

History of the Medical ID Symbol

Although the caduceus (two snakes symbol) had a non-medical origin, it began to be associated with the healing professions during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, first as an emblem of alchemy. Alchemists considered Hermes/Mercury a divine magician and used the caduceus to indicate preparations containing mercury.

Because of the links between alchemy and pharmacy, as well as the use of mercury in pharmaceutical preparation from the 16th century onwards, the caduceus started to be used as a symbol linked to healing and can be found throughout history.

It is speculated that the official use of the caduceus in modern medicine was introduced by the United States Marine Service in 1857. In 1902, it formally came to represent the U.S. Army Medical Service and the U.S. Public Health Service, after the latter adopted it in 1881. It’s further speculated that the caduceus was adopted due to a lack of awareness of the distinction between the caduceus and the staff of Asclepius.

Over time, many medical and pharmaceutical organisations have modified their logos to remove the caduceus and return to the roots of the staff of Asclepius. For example, in 1912 the American Medical Association, after much discussion, adopted the staff of Asclepius.

Although the caduceus is still accepted as a medical emblem in some parts of the world, most of the world recognises the staff of Asclepius as the emblem to represent medicine and healing. 

Which Medical ID Symbol Should You Use on a Medical Alert Bracelet or Necklace?

The star of life, the staff of Asclepius and Caduceus as well as the Red Cross’s four-bar cross are all internationally recognised medical symbols. The most crucial point is that a wearable medical ID should feature one of these internationally recognised symbols to make it easily identifiable in the event of an emergency.

Paramedics and other first responders are trained to look for medical alert IDs when evaluating a patient and will recognise these symbols which signpost them to the information on or in your medical alert ID, enabling them to respond accordingly.

All of our medical alert IDs are marked with the internationally recognised medical ID symbol of a snake and staff, also known as the staff of Asclepius, within the six-pointed star of life.

Are You Looking to Order a Medical ID Bracelet?

Choose from a wide range of materials and styles, from supersoft silicone wristbands to traditional stainless steel link bracelets, from stylish leather bracelets to super lightweight carbon fibre, and from everyday wear to elegant choices for that more sophisticated look, you’re sure to find a style and size to suit you.

The majority of our medical ID bracelets can be personalised with your important medical information. If bracelets and wristbands aren’t your thing, we also offer a range of personalisable medical ID pendants and dog tags.