Discusses role of health care agent if you can’t make healthcare decisions for yourself. Covers medical power of attorney and living will. Includes link to checklist for writing an advance directive.
Choosing a Health Care Agent
What is a health care agent?
health care agent is a person you choose in advance to
make health care decisions for you in the event that you become unable to do
so. A health care agent can help make medical decisions on your behalf at the
end of life or any other time you are not able to communicate, such as if you
are severely injured in an accident. A health care agent also may be called a
health care proxy or surrogate or an attorney-in-fact.
vary regarding the specific types of decisions health care agents can make.
In general, a health care agent can agree to or refuse treatment and can
withdraw treatment on your behalf. Your health care agent can use the
information in your
living will (also called a treatment directive),
statements made by you in the past, and what he or she knows about you
personally to make these decisions. For example, your agent can consent to
surgery, refuse to have you placed on life-support machines, or request that
you be taken off life support.
How do I choose a health care agent?
someone you trust. Your agent needs to be willing and able to make potentially
difficult decisions about medical treatment for you. Discuss your desires,
values, fears, and preferences about medical care in various situations. The
more your agent knows about you and your values, the more likely he or she will
be to make the kinds of decisions you would make if you were able.
Where can I get the form I need to name my health care agent?
A legal form, usually called a
medical power of attorney (but it may be called by other names in some states),
is used for documenting your choice of a health care agent. This form is
usually available through your state's bar association or office for the aging. Law offices and hospitals also have these forms or can direct
you to where to find them. You can also get copies of the forms for your state
from Caring Connections at its website or by phone: www.caringinfo.org
You must sign the form to make it
valid. Some states require the form to be notarized (witnessed by a notary
public) and signed by at least two witnesses. A medical power of attorney and a
living will are types of
advance directives. Be sure to tell your family
members and doctors whom you have selected as your health care agent.
Who will make decisions for me if I don't have a health care agent?
By appointing a health care agent, you are clearly stating
who has the authority to make health decisions on your behalf. If you do not
have a health care agent or a living will, your family members may disagree
about the type of medical care you should receive if you are ever in a
situation where you cannot communicate. Depending on the state in which you
live, decisions about your medical care may be made by doctors, hospital
administrators, or judges. Completing a living will and choosing a health care
agent can help your family and friends make decisions during a stressful time.
Someone will have
to make medical decisions for you if you become unable to communicate or lose
decision-making abilities. By selecting a
health care agent in advance, you grant the person you
want to make these decisions the legal right to do so. This helps avoid
uncertainty, conflict, and stress for your loved ones during a time that is
likely to already be difficult for them. Also, it ensures that you will have an
advocate to help others understand your preferences. The legal form that states
your choice of a health care agent is usually called a medical power of
attorney or a durable power of attorney for health care. But it may be called
by other names in some states.
Ideally, you will also create a
living will that outlines the basic types of care you
would want under a variety of situations. Having this document can help your
health care agent, doctors, and family members understand your desires more
completely. But it cannot cover all possible situations that might occur.
A health care agent becomes especially valuable if your condition changes. He
or she can talk to your doctors about care options, weigh the risks and
benefits, and make decisions based on the specific situation. The health care
agent and living will complement each other so you can be assured that your
medical care matches your preferences as closely as possible.
health care agent can also have more credibility in seeking a second opinion or
when talking to hospital administrators about your care. This can become
especially important if your agent feels that decisions about your health care
are not being made in the way that you would wish.
If you do not
health care agent or a living will, decisions about
your medical care may be made by family members (who may find it difficult to
be in such a position or who may disagree with each other), doctors, hospital
administrators, or judges. By appointing a health care agent, you are clearly
stating who you think understands your wishes best and who you want to make
health decisions on your behalf.
health care agent is an important decision that will
help ensure that your wishes for medical care will be respected if you are not
able to speak for yourself. The following steps will help you choose and then
prepare your agent for speaking on your behalf.
Choose someone you trust to be your agent.
Think about who in your life knows you well and who could intelligently apply
this knowledge in different circumstances. Also, consider whether the person
could handle the stress and emotional turmoil that can go along with these
important decisions. Be sure he or she could handle this responsibility. It may
help to review some basic
considerations for choosing a health care agent.
things to include in your advance directive. And take
time to carefully consider medical issues and the types of care available in
different situations. Talk to your agent about your values and preferences for
Make sure your health care agent knows what
you consider to be an acceptable quality of life and how high the likelihood of
a full or acceptable recovery should be before you would accept treatment. You
do not want to limit your agent's ability to make decisions, but he or she
should know what is important to you.
Do not assume that someone
close to you, such as a child or spouse, knows what you would want. Your agent
may not know about or share your preferences, so it is very important that you
talk openly about your wishes.
It is not possible to discuss every
possible situation that might arise in which your agent may need to make a
decision for you. But if you talk with your health care agent about what
is important to you, your agent will be better able to make the kinds of
decisions that you would make if you were able.
Complete the necessary forms to appoint your
All states have a document you can use to
appoint a health care agent. This form is usually called a medical power of
attorney or durable power of attorney for health care. You do not need a lawyer
or attorney to complete this form, but it must be witnessed by someone other
than you and your agent. Witnessing requirements vary by state. This form is
available through your state's bar association or office for the aging. Law
offices and hospitals also have these forms or can direct you to
where to find them. You can also get copies of the forms for your state and
instructions for completing the forms by contacting Caring Connections
Your state may offer an online registry. This is a place you can store your advance directive online so authorized healthcare providers can find it right away.
Read the forms carefully. Some
states may restrict the types of decisions that a health care agent can make or
may limit the health care agent's authority to only those decisions written in
your living will.
Depending on the laws in your state, you may wish
to involve your health care agent as you write your
living will so that your agent fully understands your
Tell your family, your doctors, and anyone else
who might be involved in your medical care who your agent is and how to contact
Keep copies of your living will and health
care agent documents in a safe but easy-to-access place where others can find
Give copies of these documents to your doctor, your agent,
your family members, and anyone else who may need them.
Where to Go From Here
Talk with your family about
whom you have selected as your
health care agent and explain the reasons why. Try to
openly discuss the types of medical care you would or would not want under
various circumstances. Make it an ongoing conversation. You may decide to first
introduce the idea by bringing up the fact that you have selected an agent. If
your family has difficulty discussing the issue, provide more information
Make sure your
advance directive forms are kept in a safe but
accessible place, such as in your desk with other important papers. Let your
loved ones know where you keep your forms. Give copies to:
The person that you choose for your agent and any alternate agents.
Your doctor or doctors.
Any other person who may be called if you have a medical emergency.
Do not keep
your advance directive forms in a safe deposit box. If you are not able to communicate, your
family may not know how to access these forms. Also, don't rely on your lawyer to
be able to provide the documents when they are needed. Your family may not know
whom to contact.
You can make changes to any advance directive at
any time. This includes changing your health care agent. You should fill out a
new form for any changes except very minor ones, such as a new phone number or
Communicate with your health care agent. If you change
your mind about medical care matters and make a new living will, keep your
health care agent up to date.
Caring Connections, a program of the U.S. National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), seeks to improve care at the end of life. Caring Connections provides free resources, including educational brochures, advance directives and hospice information, and a toll-free help line for people looking for quality end-of-life information.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.