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Health Care Agents: Appointing One and Being One

How does appointing a health care agent differ from creating a living will?

A living will is a document that provides specific instructions about end-of-life care. It may be called a medical directive, declaration, or something else, but its purpose is to give specific directions or guidelines for the care you want to receive. In contrast, a medical power of attorney is a document in which you designate a person to make medical decisions that may or may not be limited to end-of-life care.

Generally, the appointment of a health care agent permits more flexible decision making. Living wills, when used without a health care agent, are more limited as a tool for decision making because they cannot address unanticipated medical situations and might be difficult to interpret in a particular circumstance.

 

If I appoint an agent, should I prepare a living will?

In most states it is not necessary to prepare a living will or other directive if you have appointed a health care agent; however, living wills can still be useful. If the agent must make a difficult decision, the instructions you have given in your living will can reassure your agent that your wishes are being followed.

Furthermore, if the person you appointed to be your agent becomes unavailable to speak for you, your living will can provide useful guidanceto your caregivers. A thoughtfully prepared living will can be a valuable complement to the appointment of an agent.

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.

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