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What is a Health Care Proxy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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A health care proxy is a legal document which empowers someone to make health care decisions on behalf of someone else. Health care proxies are usually designed to take effect in the event that someone is incapacitated or unable to communicate, with the agent making decisions which reflect the wishes of the incapacitated individual. Many regions of the world recognize health care proxies, and some even actively encourage people to consider drafting a health care proxy.

Health care proxies are a special form of power of attorney. They are written in such a way that they only take effect in set circumstances, so that the agent does not have control over the principle's health care when the principle is able to communicate and make decisions independently. Typically, a health care proxy spells out the details of the situations in which the document would take effect, such as entry into a coma or persistent vegetative state.

This legal document is not the same as a living will. A living will is a document which expressly details the patient's wishes in cases of certain medical situations. For example, a patient may indicate that he or she does not want to be resuscitated in the event of a severe seizure or heart attack. A health care proxy designates someone to make medical choices, and while the agent's decisions will ideally reflect the wishes of the patient, this may not always be the case.

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When writing out a health care proxy, it is important to talk to the person who will be designated as the agent, to make sure that he or she is willing to take on this duty, and to explain what will be expected. It is also a good idea to talk with an agent about end of life wishes, ranging from a desire to avoid feeding tubes to a wish for every possible lifesaving measure to be taken. Some people combine health care proxies with living wills, asking their proxies to enforce the clauses of their living wills.

Often, a health care proxy empowers a family member to act as agent, although this is not always the case. Medical doctors are permitted to serve as proxies as long as they are not involved directly in the case, and people under 18 are not allowed to be listed as agents in a health care proxy. When selecting an agent, people may want to consider issues like geographical proximity and trustworthiness, and discussing the agent's own beliefs about end of life care is a good idea, as the proxy may have conflicting ideas about how issues like pain management and lifesaving measures should be handled.

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