Munich, Germany — Though pioneering a brand-new health-monitoring technology, scientists at the Technical University of Munich are doing it through an ancient art: tattoos. Their goal is to ink people with customizable body art that will change color based on properties of their blood. The dyes change color in response to fluctuating pH, to help signal lung issues; albumin, to indicate a kidney problem; and glucose, to track blood-sugar levels for people with diabetes or prediabetes.

The dynamic emblems could prove invaluable to patients with chronic or long-term conditions in these areas. While a yellow-to-green shift, for example, doesn’t represent a diagnosis all by itself, it might tell someone that they should self-assess or see a doctor. At this point, the variable inks have been tested only on pigskins.

The German team has also created a companion app that informs users when their tattoos have changed colors and what that might mean. The onboard sensors in smartphones and wearable fitness trackers, which can gather biological data in real time, are revolutionizing clinical trials, mental health outreach, and more. But, monitoring blood sugar levels has been particularly challenging to pull off discreetly and neatly, with Google abandoning its effort to build a glucose-monitoring contact lens after four years in 2018. If effective, this body art might present an appealing and inexpensive option, and one that’s much prettier than a prick.

As health care grows increasingly intertwined with the worlds of tech, retail and more, it’s also turning to art for inspiration. GlaxoSmithKline’s Breath of Life campaign encourages people in China to test for COPD through an app that produces personalized and shareable blown-ink trees based on users’ expiratory flow rates. The artistic visual engagement doesn’t just draw people in; it makes it more likely that they’ll share it with others and thereby raise awareness. More and more, health care leaders are finding that original and customized art is sparking new conversations and boosting engagement.

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.