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Health Care Agents: Appointing One and Being One

Whom can I appoint to be my health care agent?

Your agent can be almost any adult whom you trust to make health care decisions for you. However, most states do not permit you to appoint your attending physician (unless the individual resigns as your physician) or employees of the institution in which you are a patient (unless they are related to you by blood or marriage).

The most important considerations are that the agent be someone:

  • you trust
  • who knows you well
  • who will honor your wishes.

Ideally, it also should be someone who is not afraid to ask questions of health care professionals in order to get the information needed to make decisions. Your agent may need to be assertive and not everyone is comfortable accepting this sort of responsibility. Therefore, it is very important to have an honest discussion with the person you plan to name as your health care agent before you make the appointment.

Some people assume that they should appoint their spouse or adult child to be the agent. This is perfectly acceptable; however, sometimes a spouse or child may not feel able to make difficult decisions. For example, a husband may say that even if he knew that his wife would not want to be maintained on life-support, he could not make a decision to stop treatment. Or an adult child may not be comfortable dealing with medical issues, raising questions with doctors, or, if necessary, challenging a doctor's authority.

If your close relatives have similar concerns, it can be a relief to them if you appoint a friend or other relative who might be more comfortable with the responsibility. Practical considerations such as location or availability may also influence your choice.

Often people assume that their closest relatives know what they would want, so they think it is unnecessary to discuss preferences with them. However, people sometimes find that when they actually talk with their loved ones about end-of-life issues, they have very different views. Talking openly about the possibilities and your preferences is essential to assuring that your agent knows what you want.

Everyone's situation is unique. Your decision about whom to appoint must be guided by your own circumstances and relationships.

Can I appoint more than one person to be my health care agent?

In many states you may not appoint more than one person to act as your agent at the same time. Unnecessary conflict and confusion may result when one person does not have clear decision making authority. The medical providers also can communicate more effectively when they know that there is one person clearly designated to receive information and make decisions. You can appoint an alternate agent in case the primary agent is unavailable or unable to serve. You can ask your agent to share informationand consult with other family members if you wish.

Parents sometimes want to appoint all of their adult children to act together as the agent to avoid "playing favorites." If you do not want to make this choice alone, you could ask your children to decide among themselves who should be the primary agent. Practical considerations such as location often make the decision obvious; sometimes one child is more willing to take on this role or is more comfortable dealing with medical personnel than another.

WebMD Medical Reference from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

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