National Healthcare Decisions Day Encourages Adults to Think Ahead and Make Their Wishes Clear

Northwestern Medicine
Health and Wellness April 16, 2012

When dealing with the anguish of watching a loved one’s health decline, family members are often overwhelmed with grief and confusion. It is a trying time for everyone involved, making it important that families pull together. When medical decisions must be made, the situation is made even more stressful as family members debate healthcare decisions and question who best knows the patient’s wishes. Advanced directives are a free and relatively easy to complete document that can alleviate this stress by making one’s wishes clear so family members may act accordingly.

There are two main forms of advance directives, power of attorney for healthcare and living will. Power of attorney for healthcare names a specific individual designated to make medical decisions on behalf of the patient, whereas a living will spells out what kind of medical treatments and life-sustaining measures physicians should carry out. Doctors rely on these documents only when patients are unable to make decisions due to the severity of their medical condition. Today marks National Healthcare Decisions Day, a date that healthcare workers and clinicians hope will encourage people to think ahead and state their wishes before they are faced with a difficult healthcare situation.

“Advance directives have the power to lift the burden of confusion from family and friends during a health crisis, allowing them to instead focus their energy on supporting the patient and one another,” said Kathy Neely, MD, chair of the Medical Ethics Committee at Northwestern Memorial. “The person named by the patient can speak on behalf of the patient and collaborate with the healthcare team to make decisions as stated in the document.”

Neely encourages all adults to prepare this document and to discuss their thoughts about medical care with the person they have identified to act on their behalf, referred to as their agent. The agent may be a family member, partner, or good friend – anyone the individual selects. “Once you complete your advance directive, make it known,” said Neely. “Far too often family and physicians do not know these documents exist.”

At Northwestern Memorial, advance directives are scanned into the hospital’s electronic medical record and patients have an opportunity to confirm that the directive is still current at the time of admission or provide a new document.

The idea of creating an advance directive can be daunting, since most people do not wish to think about situations that warrant the document. However, experts say completing an advanced directive does not have to be a sad task.

“Having an advanced directive in place puts you in control and should foster peace of mind,” adds Neely.

Neely recommends looking at advanced directives like life insurance or estate planning. “This is yet another way to lighten the burden on our loved ones. Serious illness is not something people like to think about, but by doing a little bit of planning, one can put things in order for their family in case the situation ever arises,” adds Neely.

Learn more information about advance directives and who to obtain links to the forms.

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