What is a Health Care Power of Attorney and is having one enough?

A Health Care Power of Attorney (some states call it a health care proxy or medical directive) is critical for anyone who wants to protect their own well-being and reduce the likelihood of family conflict over their health care. 

A Health Care Power of Attorney allows you to name the person (your agent) that you want to make your health care decisions if you are unable to make those decisions yourself. It also allows you to let your agent know how you want your health care decisions to be made.  The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) strictly protects who may access your medical records.  A Health Care Power of Attorney should include the appropriate language to ensure that your appointed health care agent will be able to access your medical records so as to be better equipped to make an informed decision regarding your treatment.

Why is it important to have a Health Care Power of Attorney?  Well, do you recognize the name Terri Shiavo?  She was the poor young women in Florida who was on life support for years while her husband and parents were deadlocked in a lengthy and hostile court battle that was plastered all over the news.  In short, if you don’t want to “famous” like Terri, I strongly encourage you to have a properly executive Health Care Power of Attorney that clearly sets out who is authorized to make your medical decisions. 

But is just having a Health Care Power of Attorney enough?  Arguably, no.  Anyone that I have ever spoken with that has served as a health care agent for a loved one has some sort of story to share about how stressful it was and how uncertain they felt about their loved ones preferences.  Making life or death decisions is not easy, especially when your loved one wants to honor your wishes. 

The problem is that frequently, your health care agent probably doesn’t know what your wishes are.  I find that many of my clients have made generic statements to their family that “they don’t want to be kept alive by machines.”  But the world of medicine is not so black and white and such a vague statement doesn’t really give your health care agent any context for the level of care you would or would not want depending on the circumstances. 

Although it may be difficult to think about or talk about, we strongly encourage you to share some detailed guidance with your health care agent regarding your health care preferences.  Because we have found that many of our clients struggle with knowing what sort of instructions they should be leaving, we have even developed tools to help our clients with this process and leave detailed health care wishes and instructions, so their family never has to deal with the little nagging voice in the back of their head asking, “Am I doing the right thing?” that might haunt them for years.