A healthcare proxy is a legal document that names a representative, or proxy, to make decisions about your medical care should you become unable to make them yourself due to an accident or medical event. This document is an important part of advance care planning and is put in place in case of emergency or incapacitation.
The term may also be applied to the person you place in charge of your medical affairs. In this case, a proxy is a person who sees that your medical wishes are carried out if the time comes when you are unable to communicate them yourself.
Why Have a Healthcare Proxy?
Without a healthcare proxy, also called a durable medical power of attorney, there is no guarantee your wishes will be carried out. Unless you have documented how your healthcare affairs should be handled, even well-meaning family members may not make the decisions you would make for yourself. A clearly drafted legal document takes the guesswork out of decisions, making it easier for your family and medical team.
A healthcare proxy is different from a standard power of attorney, which allows a designated person to make financial decisions on your behalf. A healthcare proxy is limited to only medical decisions. It is also not the same as a living will. A living will provides instruction for your medical care in case of incapacitation, but unlike a healthcare proxy, it does not designate a person to make those decisions.
Your proxy may act on your behalf on a temporary or permanent basis. Your doctor will evaluate your physical and mental status to determine whether you are capable of making your own medical decisions. If you are not able to make these decisions, your proxy will be called upon to start making them on your behalf.
Selecting a Proxy
State laws vary on who is eligible to act as a healthcare proxy. Requirements are dictated by state law but may include the following:
- Must be an adult age 18 or older in most states. Some states require proxies to be at least 19 years of age.
- In most states, you cannot name your current physician, healthcare team member or employee of a healthcare facility where you currently reside (unless this person is a family member).
- Some states will not allow a person who is a potential beneficiary of your estate or who is responsible for you financially to act as your healthcare proxy.
Choosing a healthcare proxy is not only a legal matter but a personal one. Consider the following when selecting a proxy:
- Is this a person you can trust?
- Will they advocate for you?
- Does this individual understand your wishes and thoughts concerning your personal healthcare?
- Is this person able to be present when needed? Do they live nearby?
- Is your proxy knowledgeable about your personal feelings about illness, death, dying and religious beliefs?
- Is this person able to work with family members and deal with conflict and the opinions of others?
- Can they remain calm in stressful situations?
- Are they comfortable communicating with physicians and questioning recommendations?
- It is important to note that you can select a new healthcare proxy at any time. Simply complete a new durable medical power of attorney form.
To get started, you need to fill out a healthcare proxy form for your state. Think about whom you want to ask to act as your healthcare proxy and talk with them about the role. Communicate any specific desires you have for your healthcare needs and determine the extent of power you wish to hand over to them. You may decide to grant only limited power to make specific decisions or give them the ability to make all necessary medical decisions on your behalf.
After selecting a proxy, make sure you give them a signed copy of the form and any medical documents you wish to share. Include contact information for your physicians and other healthcare providers. Keep in mind, you can select a second, or back-up proxy, in case your proxy is not available. It is also a good idea to share a copy of the form with your primary care physician to hold as part of your medical records.
Duties of a Healthcare Proxy
If you have been asked to act as a healthcare proxy, it is important to know and understand your role before committing. Once you agree to assume this responsibility, you should clarify your role. The scope of decisions you are allowed to make can range widely, depending on what was included in the healthcare proxy document. Your duties may include:
- Authorizing medical and surgical treatments, procedures and other medical services on behalf of the individual you are representing.
- Choosing physicians and medical facilities, if necessary.
- Talking with doctors and gathering information to make an informed decision about medical care.
- Making decisions about organ donation, autopsy and disposition of their body after death.
- Accessing medical records.
- Asking for a second medical opinion.
- Collecting personal belongings for the person you are representing.
- Setting aside your own personal preferences to act on those of the person you are representing.
Becoming a proxy means trying your best to do what you think the person you are representing would want. As a healthcare proxy you will have full access to medical information, but it is important to note that being a healthcare proxy does not mean you have any financial responsibility for medical bills or other expenses incurred.
If you are not comfortable with this role or have any reason you do not think you could carry out the necessary responsibilities, you should decline. Simply thank the person for asking and explain why the role is not a good fit for you.
The content of this site is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical conditions or treatments.