Medical Care Planning

In this topic, you'll learn:

  • Why living wills are important.
  • The responsibilities of an individual with durable power of attorney for health care.
  • Why advance directives are useful when planning for serious medical events.


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We all face the possibility of a medical emergency that leaves us unable to make decisions for ourselves. In the same way that we grant powers of attorney to an individual to make decisions when we cannot, advance directives are written documents that tell your doctors (and to make clear to your family) what kind of treatment you'd like to have if you become unable to make medical decisions. Advance directives can take many forms, and the laws about them vary from state to state. When writing advanced directives, we recommend a consultation with a professional who understands the laws of your state.

Living wills are a kind of advance directive that come into effect when a person is terminally ill. A living will does not give you the opportunity to select someone to make decisions for you, but it allows you to specify the kind of treatment you want in specific situations. For example, you might choose to specify that you do not want to be treated with antibiotics if death is imminent. A Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR) is a type of advance directive specifying that if your heart stops or if you stop breathing you are not to be given cardiopulmonary resuscitation. A DNR order is standard procedure in hospitals to try to help all patients face these situations.

A durable power of attorney for health care (sometimes called a durable medical power of attorney) specifies whom you've chosen to make medical decisions for you and is activated anytime you're unconscious or unable to make medical decisions. You need to choose someone who meets the legal requirements in your state for acting as your agent.

The person you name as your agent must:

  • Be willing to speak and advocate on your behalf.

  • Be willing to deal with conflict among friends and family members should it arise.

  • Know you well and understand your wishes.

  • Be willing to talk with you about these issues.

  • Be someone you trust with your life.

  • Be able to fulfill any other tasks you require.

Make sure to let family members and close friends know whom you've chosen as your agent. Death is a difficult subject to bring up, but it is a good idea to discuss these issues with family members to ensure that they understand your values and beliefs. The more communication you have with family members, the easier it will be for them to respect your wishes.

Advance directives must comply with state laws. Written advance directives should also be reviewed by your doctor and your lawyer to make sure they fully understand your instructions. Once you've finalized advance directives, give copies to your family, medical power of attorney agent, and your doctor.

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