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Health Care Agents: Appointing One and Being One

Appointing a Health Care Agent What is a health care agent?

A health care agent is someone you designate to make medical decisions for you if you become unable to make decisions yourself. Your health care agent can be a close relative or a personal friend, but should be someone you trust and who knows you well. If you regain the capacity to make decisions, then you, not the health care agent, will have responsibility for making decisions related to your care.

Why should I appoint a health care agent?

When you appoint a health care agent, you are designating a person to be your voice and your advocate. Because making medical decisions is rarely simple, it is difficult to foresee all of the possibilities in advance. Having an agent permits the same kind of flexible decision making that would occur if you were able to talk with your doctors, ask questions, weigh the benefits and burdens of the treatments involved, and make decisions based on specific circumstances.

An agent usually is permitted to make decisions in a wide range of medical situations, not just those involving end of life, and can respond to unanticipated events. Decisions can be based not only on what you may have expressed, either verbally or in writing, but also on the knowledge of you as a person. Your agent can consent to treatment and refuse treatment. For example, an agent might consent to a trial of treatment and, if it does not have the expected benefit, authorize its withdrawal. Your agent can take into account other concerns you may have, such as the quality of life that matters to you, your values or religious views, and other personal concerns that might affect your decisions.

In addition, an agent can advocate on your behalf. If a physician is unwilling to honor your wishes, the agent can seek another physician, go to the administrator or ethics committee on your behalf, or take other actions to see that your wishes are respected. Your agent can have access to your medical records and can seek a second opinion for you. Your agent also can see that you receive appropriate pain management and palliative care.

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