A health care proxy is a type of advance directive. It is a legal document that gives one person, the agent, the ability to make medical (health care) decisions on behalf of another person, the principal. This document carries an important responsibility. The principal fulfills the requirements of the health care proxy properly on the agent’s behalf if the principal has become incapacitated and unable to communicate their health care preferences and wishes.
The directive contents vary by state, but are typically honored when needed if the principal is not in the state where the directive was written, as long as it is valid.
A health care proxy is also known as a health care power of attorney.
Who Needs a Health Care Proxy?
In short, almost every adult. A health care proxy is required if someone wants to assign the right to another person to make medical decisions on their behalf should they become incapacitated or unable to make or communicate sound health care decisions. To put it in terms of law, there are usually two parties in a health care proxy:
- The principal is the person who drafts the health care proxy so that they can place their trust and confidence in another person to make their medical decisions; and
- The agent is a competent adult with the capacity to make health care decisions on behalf of the principal within the confines of the health care proxy. (Note: This person can also be called the health care proxy, depending on the phrasing of the legal document.)
For example, if the principal falls into a coma and loses consciousness, their agent (their health care proxy) can make decisions on the principal’s behalf to get the principal the care they need.
When Should Someone Complete a Health Care Proxy?
Like a will, health care directives are highly recommended at any stage of adult life. Regardless of health, having a health care proxy helps family members, friends, and caretakers employ the actions the principal wants. It is not optimal for others to make health care decisions on behalf of someone else, essentially guessing what the patient (principal) may want. There may be life-saving measures or procedures that a patient would not want to endure; but if there is no health care proxy, the family may proceed with actions that conflict with the patient’s desires.
Physicians can discuss health care proxies with their patients by giving them prepared information about health care proxies, the proxy form itself, and instructions on how to fill out the form. If a patient is admitted to a hospital for urgent care, it’s important to make sure they have the document on file electronically or on paper as soon as possible to avoid confusion on patient needs and instructions.
What Information is in the Health Care Proxy?
Health care proxy contents varies by state, however, all health care proxies must include the following information:
- The full name of the principal
- The full name of the agent
- A statement that the principal intends to have the agent make health care decisions for them
- The principal’s signature and date of signature; and
- The signature of two witnesses, the date, and statements by the witnesses that the principal appeared to execute the proxy willingly and that neither agent nor any alternative agent/backup agent served as witnesses for this part of the process.
Other elements may include:
- Statements of the principal’s treatment wishes
- Limitations on the agent’s authority
- Designation of alternative agents
- Expiration dates or conditions that trigger the expiration of the health care proxy
- The signature of the health care agent
Who Should be a Health Care Proxy Agent?
It is imperative to appoint a health care proxy agent who is trustworthy and who will be an advocate for the principal. The agent understands the needs of the principal and will follow and ensure the principal’s health care instructions are met. To make sure of this, the agent understands the principal’s:
- Personal attitudes toward health, illness, death, and dying
- Medical treatment preferences, such as feelings about comfort care, life-sustaining care, and treatments that may be required in the event of unconsciousness
- Religious beliefs, if any
- Feelings about health care providers, caregivers, and health care institutions
It is also critical to update the health care proxy should any personal attitudes, beliefs, and world views change so that its terms and conditions accurately reflect them. It cannot be altered, but a new one can be written. To ensure continuity of care aligns with changes, a new health care proxy must be created to adhere to the updated amendments.
What Happens if There is No Health Care Proxy?
If there is no health care proxy for someone who becomes incapacitated and no longer capable of making medical decisions, the state and its laws determine who among the immediate family or friends can make medical decisions on the patient’s behalf.
Health care proxies are only useful to a decedent before they die. Understanding terminology used regarding a decedent prior to their death is important for survivors to better manage post-death logistics.
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Kubloss, Inc. (dba EstateGrid) has placed the information on this website as a service to the general public. It is not intended as legal, financial, or health advice or as a substitute for the particularized advice of a qualified professional. It is provided as is without warranty of any kind, either express or implied, including but not limited to, the implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, or non‐infringement.