How to Stay in Charge of Your Health Care When You Can't Speak Up
Northwestern Memorial Hospital April 16, 2015
“It is not always easy to have conversations about our medical wishes with the people we are closest to, but these conversations are important and everyone’s care wishes should be documented,” said Kathy Neely, MD, a Northwestern Medicine® internist and chair of the Medical Ethics Committee at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “When a patient hasn’t provided any advance directives and isn’t healthy enough to make decisions about their own care, loved ones are often put in the uncomfortable position of making difficult choices without the benefit of patient’s own guidance.”
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 as an “agent,” who is then designated to make medical decisions on behalf of the patient as 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 feels is best qualified.
“There is one equally important step everyone needs to remember beyond completing their advance directives, and that is making sure they will be used,” said Mary F. Mulcahy, MD, a Northwestern Medicine oncologist and member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. “Even if a patient’s advance directives are available, their family or health care providers may not know they exist or how to access them.”
Neely and Mulcahy stress not only the importance of having advance directives in place, but of also making sure loved ones are informed about them in the event they are needed. As strong advocates for advance directives themselves, both doctors have their own directives in place and regularly make sure they are kept up-to-date to reflect their wishes accurately.
“It can be difficult to sit down and prepare your advance directives and talk about them with loves ones, but this planning is critical. This preparation is the most effective way for patients to stay in control of their own lives and health care wishes,” added Mulcahy.
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 advance directives and to download free power of attorney for healthcare and living will forms. Learn more about National Healthcare Decisions Day*.