How to Make Sure Your Care Wishes are Met if You Can't Speak Up

Northwestern Medicine
For Caregivers April 16, 2014
Caregiver helps a patient make healthcare decisionsWhile no one wants to think about the possibility that one day their health, or a loved one’s, might be compromised and prevent them from making their own health care decisions, it becomes an unfortunate reality for many Americans every day. Today, April 16, is National Healthcare Decisions Day, which is dedicated to raising awareness about the importance for every adult to take the time to consider what their health care wishes are, and developing advance directives to make sure those wishes are known to their care team and loved ones.

“Without a clear indication of what someone’s medical wishes are, those closest to us often bear a very stressful and unnecessary burden of choice,” said Kathy Neely, MD, a Northwestern Medicine® internist and chair of the Medical Ethics Committee at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “We do not typically have conversations about our medical wishes with those we love most, but these conversations are important to discuss and our wishes should be documented.”

Advance directives can take two main forms, a power of attorney for healthcare and a living will. Each form is free to use and relatively easy to complete. Power of attorney for healthcare names a trusted person, referred to as an “agent,” who is designated to make medical decisions on behalf of the patient when needed. When designating an agent for advance directives, it is important to review all medical care wishes with the person selected, so they are well informed and any questions he or she might have about those wishes are answered. An agent can be a family member, partner, good friend – anyone the individual chooses.

“No one should have to guess what medical choices someone else would make for themselves,” added Mary F. Mulcahy, MD, a Northwestern Medicine oncologist and member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. “Even if advance directives have been completed by a patient, their family or health care providers may not always know they exist.”

Neely and Mulcahy stress not only the importance of having advance directives in place, but of also making sure loved ones know about them in the event they are needed. As strong advocates for advance directives, both physicians also have their own directives in place and regularly make sure these documents are up-to-date.

“It may be easy to think of advance directives planning as a less than happy activity, but it is critical to remember that it is about maintaining control over your own life and providing your family with peace of mind for what could otherwise be an impossible decision,” said Neely.

At Northwestern Memorial, advance directives are scanned directly into the hospital’s electronic medical record system and all patients are asked if their directives are current during admission, and given the opportunity to provide new documentation.

Visit our website for more information about advanced directives and to download free power of attorney for healthcare forms. Read more about National Healthcare Decisions Day.

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