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Health Care Agents: Appointing One and Being One

What if I know that members of my family disagree with my wishes? continued...

Appointing someone you trust to be your health care agent is an important step toward assuring that if you are not able to make decisions for yourself, your preferences for medical treatment will be carried out at the end of your life. You should complete the document appointing your agent carefully and follow the witnessing requirements in your state.

Take time to talk openly with your agent so that he or she is fully aware of your values and your wishes about end-of-life care. Also, take time to talk with other loved ones and health care professionals, so they understand your wishes and reasoning. Many people will consider being asked to serve as a health care agent an honor as well as a responsibility. You can return your agent's gift to you by providing her or him with as much preparation as you can.

Being a Health Care Agent Why would I want to be a health care agent?

Accepting the appointment to be a health care agent is a way of affirming the importance of your relationship to the person appointing you. However, accepting an appointment requires thoughtful consideration about whether you can fulfill the role appropriately. Acting as a health care agent brings significant responsibilities and should be viewed as an honor to be given such trust.

There also are practical reasons for accepting formal appointment as an agent. If you are the closest relative to the patient, you can expect to be the person that health care professionals will look to for consent or decisions if the patient cannot make them. However, some state laws limit this informal decision-making process, particularly in cases of decisions to forgo or withdraw treatment. Without a formal appointment you may be able to consent to treatment but not refuse it or have it stopped, even if you know it is unwanted. To stand by helplessly watching someone you love be treated in a way you know that person would not have wanted can be a very painful experience.

If there is a conflict among family members and no agent has been designated, medical providers will normally continue all treatment until the conflict is resolved. Even if you are the person who knows the patient best and the one in whom the patient has confided, you may be unable to speak for the patient unless you are the legally designated agent. You may be excluded from decisions, particularly if you are not a close relative. It is not uncommon today for a friend to be closer to a person than family members who may live far away. If you are a formally-appointed health care agent, your authority has priority over all others, including family members.

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WebMD Medical Reference from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

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