A Health Care Directive is a specialized type of Durable Power of Attorney that names someone to make health care decisions for you if you cannot. Massachusetts law calls this a Health Care Proxy while the New Hampshire term is a Power of Attorney for Health Care. The power granted includes authorization to allow or refuse all medical procedures.
We are each in charge of our own medical decision-making. If you need an operation, or need to take some medicine, it is you who decides if you have the operation, take the medicine, or refuse either one. No one can tell you what to do to your own body. But it is a problem when you cannot tell your doctor what you want.
If you are unconscious and cannot make your medical decisions, there is no telling what the doctors or the hospital might do. Worse yet, they might not be able to take any action and leave you as you are until someone can make a decision. It is much better to give someone the authority to make decisions for you if you cannot. If you don’t have a Health Care Directive and need one, your family will have to go to Court and ask a Judge to help make decisions. You don’t want that to happen.
You put your life in the hands of the person you name as your health care agent, but this is preferable to leaving it uncertain or up to the court system. Your agent’s power only comes into effect when you cannot make health care decisions for yourself. If you can communicate a preference, your wishes will be followed. The person you name in your Health Care Proxy will have authority to make life and death decisions for you, if you cannot do so yourself, so you must trust this person with your life. You may also have a statement of your wishes, called a Living Will or an Advance Directive.
Your Agents duties depend on what your directive says and upon state law. In general, your Agent will have authority to make any and all decisions you could make for yourself, if able. These include Receiving the same medical information that you would receive.
- Receiving the same medical information that you would receive.
- Conferring with the medical team.
- Reviewing the medical chart.
- Asking questions and getting explanations.
- Discussing treatment options.
- Requesting consultations and second opinions.
- Consenting to or refusing medical tests or treatments, including life-sustaining treatment.
The toughest decisions, if necessary, will concern beginning or stopping life-sustaining treatments. In each life there may come a time when the patient’s condition has deteriorated and it is clear that he will not get better. Family members or doctors may then question the value of life-sustaining treatments that seem to prolong the process of dying. Your Agent may have to make these decisions for you.
You will want to have an open discussion with your named Agent (and any alternates) sometime soon after you sign your Health Care Directive. You must explain to your chosen Agent how you feel about life and death treatments. You don’t want your Agent to deprive you of necessary treatment or even worry about it if they decide to withhold some treatment. You do want your Agent to protect you from unnecessary pain and suffering. The decisions between getting and refusing treatment can be tough. Your Agent needs to know how you feel. Do not assume that your family knows what you might want. Talk to your family and get a properly drafted and executed Health Care Directive. Everyone, age 18 and older, should consult with an Elder Law Attorney, and get a Health Care Directive.