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Choosing a Health Care Agent

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Topic Overview

What is a health care agent?

A 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.

State laws 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?

Choose 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: or 1-800-658-8898.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about choosing a health care agent:

Finding the right agent:

Ongoing concerns:

End-of-life issues:


WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: December 29, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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