What is a Healthcare Proxy?

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A healthcare proxy, also called a durable power of attorney for healthcare, is a document that designates someone else to communicate your medical preferences, or make medical decisions on your behalf, when you are unable to. This person should not only be someone who knows you well, but someone you trust who is good under pressure, and good at communicating with doctors and your family.

A patient need not be unconscious or fully disabled to require a proxy; many medical situations, including unforeseen complications during routine procedures, can put someone in a position where important medical decisions are too difficult to make in the short period required. Whomever you choose should be willing to serve, and be made fully aware of your preferences. Some things to discuss include life support, surgical possibilities, issues involving pregnancy where applicable, and any issues related to known medical conditions.

If there is no healthcare proxy designated by document, hospitals and doctors will generally turn to the spouse; if there is no spouse, then typically the adult child is next, followed by parent and siblings. However, close family members may not be the first choice in every case.

Sometimes this may have more to do with consideration than a lack of trust. Some may want to spare their loved one the added burden during an emotional time. A University of Chicago study published in the August 2006 issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine asked 298 adult outpatients to name (1) an emergency contact, and (2) a healthcare decision-maker., the results showed:

  • 28 percent chose someone other than their emergency contact to serve as proxy
  • Of the 45 percent of patients who were married, one-third did not choose their spouse as their proxy
  • Females were preferred over males for proxy. Daughters: three to one over sons; sisters two to one over brothers
  • Nine out of 10 wanted doctors to ask them to choose a proxy, but only about 25 percent they had ever been asked.
  • Only 18 percent had a proxy at the time, and just five percent had given a copy to their physician.

Many states make designating a healthcare proxy easy by providing a statutory form. To get to it, try searching your state legislature's Web site. Many states require non-family witnesses and/or a notary. It’s also a good idea to consult with your own attorney to understand the full meanings, effects, and possible scenarios not mentioned in the form before you complete or sign it.

A serious medical situation is difficult enough; careful planning can lessen the burden.

submitted by Sholeh Patrick is an attorney licensed in Idaho and Texas.