To make it easier to identify medical information in an emergency situation, there are two commonly used symbols that medical staff are trained to look out for. What are they? And which one should you choose for your medical alert or ID jewellery?
The two emergency medical symbols are very similar -- one is called the Caduceus, and the other is the Staff of Asclepius (also known as the Star of Life).
One of the common features between the two is the snake. But why a snake?
There's a long history of snakes and healing. Back in 1400 BC, Moses used a bronze snake erected on a pole to cure people who had been bitten by snakes. And much more recent medical experiments concluded that vipers were the key to valuable remedies for itching, measles and smallpox. The fact that they shed their skin reinforces the idea of immortality, longevity and healing.
The Caduceus symbol
The origin of the word "caduceus" is Latin, from Doric Greek "karukeion", from Greek "kērux" or "herald".
The Caduceus symbol has two snakes wrapped around a staff, with two wings at the top.
The Staff of Asclepius (Star of Life) symbol
The Staff of Asclepius is a similar design featuring one snake wrapped around a wingless staff.
Connections to Mythology
Both symbols are rooted in Greek mythology. The Caduceus symbol is most closely associated with the Greek god Hermes. Greek mythology says that Hermes was given the staff by Apollo, the god of healing. He once attempted to stop a fight between two snakes by throwing his staff at them, and they twined themselves around the rod. Hermes liked it so much, he took it as his own symbol, representing his areas of commerce and travel. Over time this expanded to include professionalism and craft.
Asclepius was the Greek god of healing. According to mythology he was able to restore the health of the sick and bring the dead back to life. The daughters of Asclepius are known to us today as Hygeia (the goddess of health) and Pancea (the goddess of healing).
Organisations, Uniforms and Logos
In ancient times most towns had a building called an asklepion. These were healing centres dedicated to Asclepius. Sick people were encouraged to visit them for an overnight stay and it was said that whilst they slept, Asclepion would appear to them in a dream, accompanied by a serpent who would lick them and cure them of their ailment. These sound like the equivalent of modern day hospitals (but without the snakes!)
Various organisations and military units have used these symbols. During the 19th century the Caduceus was often used on the chevrons of army hospital stewards in the United States. It was added to the uniforms of the US Army medical officers in 1902, symbolising neutrality and non-combatants.
The Staff of Asclepius (Star of Life) became the emblem of the American Medical Association in 1910. It's used around the world as well ... the French Military Service, the Medical Council of India and the World Health Organization all draw on these visual elements in their logos.
And it's still a mixed picture today. Research done by K A Baird in 1990 showed that 62% of professional associations used the Rod of Aesculapius while 37% used the Caduceus. And 76% of commercial organizations used the Caduceus.
Which emergency medical symbol should you use on a medical alert bracelet or necklace?
It really doesn't matter. Both will be effective.
Sometimes the design of the jewellery you are purchasing will dictate which symbol can be engraved (due to size and space available). Some medical jewellery companies just choose to engrave one or the other. Some organisations will include one of the symbols in their logo, so you will only see that symbol on their jewellery.
But really to comes down to personal preference. You can rest assured that whether you choose a diabetes or allergy bracelet with a Caduceus symbol or the Star of Life ... if you are involved in an emergency, medical staff will recognise them both and act accordingly.
The most important thing is that it DOES HAVE a symbol. This will help bring it to the attention of a first responder or medical professional.
Which one do you prefer, and why? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below...
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