Today I want to tackle 2 very important questions I receive all the time, and that’s “What is a Heath Care Agent?” and “How do I Choose the Right Person for the Job?”
Yet before I answer these questions, let me start by saying that as an estate planning attorney, I hear stories regularly of families who are literally barred from making medical decisions on their loved one’s behalf because they didn’t have the proper documentation in place when an accident or incapacity occurred.
It’s a devastating situation, and unfortunately something we are seeing more and more of as strict privacy and HIPAA laws are put into place.
For that reason, I always advise every adult (including 18-year-olds who can no longer rely on mom or dad for help!) to educate themselves on this important subject and ultimately put a health care power of attorney in place so someone always has legal permission to act on your behalf in an emergency.
What Does a Health Care Agent Do?
If you’re not familiar with the role of a health care agent, this is essentially the person who will carry out your wishes regarding things like life-support, resuscitation and feeding tubes if you are incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself. Your health care agent will also handle the day-to-day decision making regarding your medical care including (but not limited to):
- Medication administration
- Blood and blood products
- Diagnostic tests
- Long-term care (i.e. nursing home assistance, home health care)
- Hiring and firing medical personnel
- Determining who can (and cannot) visit you during your hospital stay
- Getting court authorization to obtain or withhold treatment if your wishes are not honored by a doctor or other healthcare professionals
How to Choose a Health Care Agent
The choice of a health care agent requires very serious consideration. While it may initially seem like an easy choice, this is actually one of the most common areas people get stuck on when trying to complete their estate plan.
Remember, your health care agent could be called on to make some of the most difficult and heart wrenching decisions they’ve ever faced in their life. The job could also be time consuming, stressful and emotionally draining depending on the nature of the emergency.
For these reasons, I would advise you as an estate planning attorney to really take your time and thoroughly evaluate all possible candidates for the job. Here are the top three qualifications I ask my clients to consider when narrowing their search:
- Location– In a true medical emergency, your health care agent may be called upon to make round-the-clock decisions until you are stable. If that occurs, you’ll want someone who lives close enough to meet with doctors and visit the hospital whenever necessary (which of course may also mean excluding people who travel a lot on business or have demanding jobs).
- Medical Understanding– While your health care agent certainly doesn’t need a PhD in science, you do want someone who is capable of understanding your medical condition and the choices presented to him or her by the doctors overseeing your care. That may also require you to weed out candidates who are overly squeamish or emotional about medical subjects to ensure the best decisions are made on your behalf.
- Loyalty– The person you choose as health care agent should feel a sense of loyalty to you and your wishes to ensure your preferences are fully carried out in the face of emotional stress, personal disagreement or pressure from other family members to make decisions contrary to those you have specified.
Once you’ve selected your health care agents, be sure to also select back-ups in case your first choice is not available. I would also strongly encourage you to talk to your selected health care agents about your wishes regarding your health care preferences. I know these are the tough conversations that none of us want to have, but it will ensure that you receive the care you want and it will be a huge weight off of your loved ones shoulders if they have clear guidance from you. In our office, we’ve developed detailed health care worksheets that all of our client’s complete to help capture these critical instructions.
Of course if after going through this brief checklist you still have questions about how to choose a health care agent, what an agent can do for you or even how to limit the scope of your agent’s power during a medical emergency, I invite you to call our office at (919)443-3035 and schedule a Peace of Mind Planning Session. During this session we can discuss your options and make sure you truly have the right documentation in place to protect your medical wishes if the unthinkable occurs.