The Health Care Proxy: Why You Should Consider Putting One In Place

By Rebecca Lake. May 7th 2016

If you have specific wishes regarding your future medical care and treatment, you may want to consider establishing a health care proxy. Doing so allows you to leave detailed instructions for your loved ones regarding which actions should or should not be taken in the event that you are unable to make health care decisions on your own. If you don’t currently have a health care proxy, there are several important reasons why you may want to consider establishing one.

What Is A Health Care Proxy?

A health care proxy is a legal document that grants someone of your choosing the ability to make medical decisions on your behalf. This person is known as your health care agent. You may establish a health care proxy as part of a broader advance directive for medical care. The health care agent’s primary duty is to ensure that your wishes are respected. You may choose to appoint a family member or other relative as your health care agent. If your family is opposed to your wishes, you may choose a friend or other individual that you trust to follow your instructions. State laws vary regarding who may serve as a health care agent so it’s important to make sure that the person you choose is legally able to act on your behalf.

There are two primary situations in which a health care agent would have authority to act. First, if you become temporarily incapacitated in any way, your health care agent would have the power to make decisions on your behalf until you regain consciousness. An example of this type of scenario would be if you were undergoing surgery which required anesthesia. The second scenario involves situations where you are permanently incapacitated. For example, if you suffer an injury that leaves you in a permanent vegetative state or you fall into a coma. Your health care agent would also have the authority to act in situations where your mental capacity is compromised due to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or another brain-related injury or illness.

Establishing An Advance Directive

An advance directive is a comprehensive legal document that applies to future medical care. Depending on your situation, your advance directive may include a health care proxy, a living will and/or a Do Not Resuscitate order if applicable. A living will allows you to outline the type of medical care you wish to receive in end-of-life situations. This includes instructions regarding the use of respirators, feeding tubes or intravenous hydration. You can also specify whether you wish to receive certain types of treatment including blood transfusions, experimental treatments and pain management therapy. If you have a living will in place, the health care agent is required to act according to the terms outlined in the document.

Advance directives must be established in writing and they must be signed by you and the person appointed to act as your health care agent. Generally, you can obtain an advance directive form by contacting a hospital in your area or your state health department. Depending on where you live, the advance directive may need to be witnessed and/or notarized before it can be considered valid. Once you’ve established your advance directive, you should provide copies to your physician and your immediate family members.

Benefits Of A Health Care Proxy

The primary benefit of a health care proxy is that it protects your rights in the event that you are unable to speak for yourself. While you may think a living will is sufficient to communicate your wishes, it’s important to remember that there are a number of states in which living wills are not legally recognized. If you live in a state where living wills are not protected by statutory law, your relatives may attempt to oppose its enforcement if they disagree with your instructions. Having a health care proxy in place ensures that only the individual you trust will be responsible for making relevant medical decisions.

A health care agent would also have authority to act in situations where a living will would not apply. For example, living wills are generally not enforceable in situations where the person who created the will becomes ill or incapacitated while pregnant. In situations where the life of the mother and/or the unborn child is at stake, the health care agent would have the authority to determine the most appropriate course of treatment.

Finally, health care proxies also allow you to specify your wishes regarding your care after your death. For example, you may choose to leave instructions regarding tissue or organ donation. Your health care agent can also be granted decision-making power over funeral and burial arrangements.

What An Advance Directive Can’t Do

While the scope of an advance directive is fairly broad, there are certain things that they cannot do. For example, you cannot use an advance directive to specifically request assisted suicide or any type of treatment that would directly result in your death. Having an advance directive in place also does not guarantee that your family members won’t attempt to circumvent your instructions if they disagree with them. In some cases, it may be that your doctor disagrees with your health care decisions. In situations like these, your physician may refuse to follow the advance directive as long as he or she finds another doctor who is willing to do so in a timely manner.

Regardless of your age, it’s never too early or too late to begin thinking about your future medical care. Establishing a health care proxy is the first step in ensuring that you will receive the type and quality of treatment you prefer in the event of a serious injury or illness. While there are some minor drawbacks associated with creating an advance directive, the benefits far outweigh any disadvantages.


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