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What is a health care proxy?

[x_blockquote cite=”Antoine (Annapolis, MD)” type=”left”]Dear Marci,
What is a health care proxy?[/x_blockquote]

Dear Antoine,

A health care proxy is a document that appoints another person to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to do so. This person is called a proxy or an agent. Naming a health care agent is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that you always receive the health care you prefer. Typically, you do not have to be terminally ill for a health care proxy to go into effect.

If you do not appoint a health care proxy and cannot make health care decisions, state law determines who can make decisions on your behalf. Most states have laws that let close family members and others (surrogates) act on your behalf if you haven’t appointed a health care agent, but you may not want these people to make decisions for you.

As long as you give your agent permission, they will usually have the flexibility to make most treatment decisions for you and access your medical records.

When choosing a health care agent, it’s important to appoint someone:

  • Who you trust
  • Who knows you well and understands your medical preferences
  • Who will be assertive in making decisions
  • Who will honor your wishes

Things you should discuss with your health care agent:

  • Personal attitudes towards health, illness, dying, and death
  • Religious beliefs
  • Feelings about doctors and other caregivers
  • Feelings about palliative care versus life-sustaining treatments like artificial nutrition and hydration
  • Treatment preference if you are unconscious for a long time and not expected to recover

If there is no one you trust to make health care decisions for you, you don’t have to name anyone as your agent. You can instead create a living will to advise your doctors about your preferences.

A health care proxy generally only gives your agent the power to make medical decisions for you. Decisions about things such as health insurance may be considered a financial, not medical, decision depending on state law. It’s generally best to consult with a lawyer to appoint a power of attorney for those types of decisions.

You don’t need a lawyer to write a health care proxy. You can use a standardized form and tailor it to your needs, but make sure that it meets all of your state’s legal requirements. Discuss the document with your health care agent and your loved ones. Give a copy of the document to your health care agent and to your providers.

These conversations can be difficult, but creating a health care proxy can help individuals be prepared for different health care situations.

 – Marci 

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