Many people have a will in place if they are elderly or otherwise, which may account for various assets and their other wishes when they pass on. However, it’s not as common for people to have a healthcare proxy – also known as a power of attorney for healthcare in some states – to make medical decisions for you.
Roughly 40% of American adults currently have a will in place. Figures are harder to come by regarding those with a healthcare proxy, but according to a study from Healthaffairs.org, between the years 2011-2016, 32.7% of healthy adults and 38.2% of those with a chronic illness had a healthcare proxy in place.
This discrepancy between those with a will and a healthcare proxy seems too large, given the importance and likelihood of a person needing medical aid as they grow older. Let’s look at why a healthcare proxy is essential, its benefits, and what could happen if you or your loved ones don’t have one.
What is a healthcare proxy?
A healthcare proxy, also known as a power of attorney (POA) for healthcare, is a legal instrument that allows you to name someone to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so yourself.
When your doctor believes you are unable to make or explain your own health decisions, your chosen proxy (also known as an “agent”) can use this document to speak on your behalf. This document lets you designate the healthcare decisions you want to make, including organ donations and resuscitation requests, but it also leaves decision-making power about unforeseen decisions up to your agent, if you so choose.
A healthcare proxy obviously comes into play while you’re alive, as opposed to when you die, like a will. The healthcare proxy and power of attorney set up safety nets for your healthcare and finances. If something happens to you and you’re incapacitated, whether from injury or illness, you are taken care of.
How to go about getting a healthcare proxy
A healthcare proxy is a relatively simple legal document to create. You can work with an attorney, but it’s easier and more affordable to use a service that creates one for you. Estate-planning services let you create your healthcare proxy in just a few steps using a simple survey-style process. First, you enter your agent’s information, your wishes concerning medical treatment, and your HIPAA authorization. Once these steps are complete, there will be instructions to make your healthcare proxy official, where you can finally upload it and share it with your chosen agent and anyone else.
Avoid the worst-case scenarios
Hector “Macho” Camacho was a boxer who was tragically shot outside of a bar on the island of Puerto Rico. Emergency responders stabilized the fighter, but not before he was declared brain dead by medical professionals at a nearby hospital. Unfortunately, what followed was a huge family feud over the boxer’s end-of-life wishes.
According to reports, the family couldn’t agree on whether or not the boxer should be taken off life support, which led to a lot of uncertainty and infighting. The extra life support measures were eventually stopped, and the boxer died. However, the final hours of conflict among family members may have a long-term impact on the family dynamic. With a healthcare proxy, families can prevent similar crises from happening.
People need to prioritize talking about their beliefs and what is important to them toward the end of life with their proxies and other loved ones. They may inform their healthcare proxy, for example, that they wish to die at home or that being mobile and able to interact with their family is very important to them. Others may choose to forego unpleasant procedures to extend their lives in favor of care that keeps them comfortable and gives them the best quality of life possible with the time they have left. Whatever choice a person makes, the key is to respect their decisions.
Some studies looking into the “association between healthcare proxies and quality of end‐of‐life care” suggest that patients who have a healthcare proxy are less likely to die in the hospital and more likely to receive care consistent with their preferences. Furthermore, these same patients can report better communication with their doctors and even less costly care as a result.
Improved communication is crucial to avoid a scenario where the treatments someone has picked are not the same as those they receive. This misalignment between sought and received treatment could result in potentially ineffective therapies, increasing suffering for patients and caregivers, and driving up healthcare expenditures.
The fact is virtually all adults (92%), regardless of age, believe it is critical for people to assign their medical preferences or who they would like to make medical care choices for them if they become very ill. Conversations during illness can often be challenging and wrought with emotion, meaning that there may be difficult trade-offs or requests that don’t align with a person’s true wishes.
A healthcare proxy can go a long way to alleviating this struggle and providing comfort to someone in their time of need.