What Is a Health Care Agent?

Most of us want to make our own decisions about our bodies and medical care. But sometimes that’s not possible. That’s where a health care agent comes in.

This is a person you allow to make decisions for you in case you can’t make them yourself. For example, if you were in an accident that left you unable to speak, your agent could make choices that honor how you want to be cared for.

A health care agent may also be known as:

  • An attorney-in-fact
  • A health care proxy
  • A representative
  • A surrogate

Should I Get One?

Having a health care agent can be a big help. Even if you have a living will, you can’t plan for everything that might arise when you need care. And you may not be well enough to make choices for yourself.

With a health care agent and a living will, you’re more likely to have your wishes honored. You can also ease stress on your family. They won’t have to guess at what you might want.

Whom Should I Choose?

You can pick almost any adult to be your agent. It could be a family member or friend, a lawyer, or perhaps someone from your faith group. In most states, you can’t choose your doctor or someone who works for your doctor, hospital, or nursing home to be your health care agent.

You want to pick someone you trust and who knows you very well. Look for someone you can talk to about hard decisions and who will support your choices.

Your agent may have to ask doctors a lot of questions and push hard for what you want. Try to pick someone who you think can take that on.

When you have someone in mind, talk a lot with each other. You need to be very clear and honest about what you want. No matter how well you think someone knows you, people have very different ideas about what to do in situations like these.

You can talk about your values and beliefs. You need to speak openly about life-support decisions, like whether you’d want CPR or a feeding tube and in what circumstances.

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You can’t cover every possible detail. Your agent may have to make treatment choices that never came up when you talked. Cover enough ground so that she gets a really good feel for what you want and believe. That will help her make the best decisions for you.

You’ll also want to choose a backup agent. Sometimes, doctors need to make quick decisions about treatment. If your first choice can’t be reached, they can check with your alternative agent.

What Can They Decide?

Your agent can speak for you only about health care, not money or other legal issues. Also, they can only make decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself.

Laws about what a health care agent can decide vary by state. Usually, they can make choices about life support and more routine care. This could mean the choice to start, stop, or try a different treatment.

Your agent helps make sure doctors follow your living will. If you don’t have a living will, she tries to make the same choices you’d make for yourself.

How Do I Make It Legal?

You put her name in a form called a “health care power of attorney.” You might also hear it called:

  • Appointment of a health care agent
  • Durable power of attorney for health care
  • Health care proxy

You don’t need a lawyer to create this. You can get them online, from your local or state government, and possibly at your doctor’s office or hospital. Normally, you also need two witnesses -- people not related to you who watch you sign and date the forms.

Keep in mind that various states have different laws governing this.

If you live in two states -- one in the summer and one in the winter, for example -- you’ll need to make sure your health care power of attorney works in both places. This could mean you need to fill out forms for each state. If you’re not sure what to do, a lawyer can help.

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Finally, keep your finished form in your files but not in a safe deposit box. You want to make sure people can access it.

Give a copy of your health care power of attorney to your doctors, your agent, your backup agent, and your family and friends.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on August 11, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute on Aging: “Planning for End-of-Life Care Decisions.”

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, CaringInfo: “End-of-Life Decisions,” “Communicate Your End-of-Life Wishes.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “What You Need to Know About a Health Care Agent.”

Stony Brook Medicine: “Health Care Proxy/Living Will.”

© 2016 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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