Learn More About A Health Care Proxy
Find out more about health care proxies or powers of attorney for healthcare

What is a power of attorney for health care, (sometimes called a health care proxy or advance directive)?

It is a document that gives someone else the authority to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to make and/or communicate such decisions.  A power of attorney for health care allows you to decide who you want to be in charge of your medical treatment and in some cases, how you want to be treated.

Why might you need a health care proxy?

If you are unable to make or communicate health care decisions, it’s important that you have nominated someone your trust (your proxy/agent) to make those decisions for you. Without a valid health care proxy, your family will be forced to appeal to the courts to be authorized to make health care decisions for you. This is costly and puts enormous strain on your family as they wander through the court system asking for permission to provide you with the care they think you would want. Everyone over the age of 18 should have a health care proxy, especially those with pre-existing health conditions. 

Is a health care proxy the same as a power of attorney for health care?  

Basically, yes.  It is confusing because in the United States we do not have a uniform law and a uniform name for the document which enables a competent adult (principal) to designate a person (agent) to make health care decisions for the principal in the event that he/she is unable to make and/or communicate decisions about medical treatment.  For instance, in Massachusetts you appoint a Massachusetts health care proxy, but in Florida that person would be called a "health care surrogate". In other states, like Missouri, that person would be a durable power of attorney for health care.  It is important to note that generally there are two types of powers of attorney:  one is strictly for health care decisions and the other is for money decisions.  Here, we are only talking about powers of attorney for health care.

What are advance directives?

An advance directive, simply stated, is a document that you complete directing what you want to happen in regards to your medical treatment if you become incapacitated.  A power of attorney for health care is a type of advanced directive because you are naming someone to act on your behalf in the future if you cannot make health care decisions.  Usually, however, when advanced directives are being discussed, it means that a person has written specific instructions for his/her doctor about what life sustaining treatment he/she wants.

What is an “invoked power of attorney for health care”?

It is a power of attorney for health care that has been activated.   “Invoked” means to activate.  Your primary care doctor, the courts, or the hospital team can invoke your power of attorney for health care, again meaning that it will be activated and your wishes that you declared will be enacted.  

What is the difference between a living will and a power of attorney for health care? 

A power of attorney for health care designates another person to make medical decisions if you cannot do so.  A living will allows you to list medical treatments and/or end of life decisions that you would or would not want if you became terminally ill and/or unable to make your own decisions.   Some treatments considered by a living will include artificial nutrition and hydration, ventilation or CPR.  These documents are often very specific in what types of situations and applications of care to which they apply.  Most states, but not all (for example Massachusetts), consider living wills valid and enforceable.  


What are life sustaining treatments?

In general, life sustaining treatments are medical treatments that allow life to continue like respirator; cardio pulmonary resuscitation; dialysis or other medical procedures. 

What is a 'Do Not Resuscitate' order or DNR?

A ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ or “DNR” order is a legal form that allows you (the principal) to authorize medical providers to withhold cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or other life-saving treatments if your heart stops or you were to stop breathing.  If your heart stops, medical personnel will not seek to revive you.

More about organ donations

Each state allows adults to make a decision about if he/she wants to be an organ donor; and if so, what organs he/she wants to donate and in what circumstances.  These are personal decisions that require reflection and discussion.  There is no right or wrong decision in terms of deciding if you want to donate your organs, which organs you would like to donate or to whom.  It is simply what you are comfortable with doing. Be sure to discuss your decision with your health care proxy and other loved ones.

Can a health care proxy cover mental health issues?

In general, a standard health care proxy/medical power of attorney does not grant your agent authority regarding mental health treatment.  Some states’ laws have allowed a person to designate an agent for mental health treatment. Those states such as New Mexico and Hawaii for example, allow a person to give detailed instructions about mental health treatment and/or allow a designated agent to make decisions.  If you would like your agent to make decisions regarding mental health treatment or have specific wishes, you should still document it.  It could be used as evidence in a court proceeding.

Who needs a power of attorney for health care?

Every adult needs a power of attorney for health care.  No one can predict the future, but you can prepare for it.  A completed power of attorney for health care enables you to be in control and appoint someone to act on your behalf if you are unable to make and/or communicate health care decisions.

When should I get a power of attorney for health care?

Whether your 19 or 99, we don’t know when emergencies might occur, so it’s never too early to start planning.



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