A health care proxy is a document that names someone you trust as your proxy, or agent, to express your wishes and make health care decisions for you if you are unable to speak for yourself. A health care proxy may also be called a durable medical power of attorney or an appointment of a health care agent or health care surrogate. Naming a proxy can help ensure that you get the health care you prefer in the event that you cannot communicate your wishes.
You do not have to be terminally ill to designate a health care proxy or for the proxy to make decisions on your behalf. Typically, your proxy will make treatment decisions only if you are incapacitated and unable to communicate due to a temporary or permanent illness or injury. A doctor may have to certify that you are incapacitated before your proxy starts making decisions for you. Your proxy may also have access to your health records and other information, depending on the permissions you give them. If you want to place restrictions on what your proxy can do or see, you should include these in your health care proxy document.
It is important to appoint a proxy you trust who will be assertive and honor your wishes. Make sure your proxy is aware of your:
- Personal attitudes toward health, illness, death, and dying
- Medical treatment preferences, such as feelings about palliative (comfort) care, life-sustaining care (like artificial hydration and nutrition), and treatments you may need in the event you are unconscious
- Religious beliefs
- Feelings about health care providers, caregivers, and health care institutions
All of the above could be included in a living will, a document that your proxy can use to make decisions on your behalf. Many states combine health care proxies and living wills into one advance directive document. Make sure to update these documents as needed and/or to tell your proxy if your feelings or attitudes change so they are able to make the most appropriate choices for you. Additionally, it is important to know that you may change your proxy at any time. To do so, create a new health care proxy document.
If you regain the ability to make your own decisions, you can choose to speak on your own behalf again.
Additional information about health care proxies
- Health care proxy documents may let you name a second person as your backup agent if your primary agent cannot fulfill their duties. It is a good idea to name a backup agent, if possible.
- You do not have to name a health care proxy. However, you may want to make sure you have a living will to advise your family and providers about your preferences. Also know that if you become incapacitated and have not appointed a proxy, state law determines who makes decisions on your behalf.
- Your health care proxy can only make medical decisions for you. If you want to appoint an individual to make financial decisions on your behalf, consult a lawyer about granting power of attorney (see How Does a Power of Attorney Work?) to someone you trust. Depending on your state, decisions about health insurance and paying health care bills may be considered financial decisions.
- You do not need a lawyer to name a health care proxy, but there are organizations that can help you if you wish.
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