Making Sense of Health Care Proxies

Posted on 04/18/2017

It’s not always simple to decide who to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re ever unable to make them for yourself.

That’s why The Conversation Project team created “How to Choose a Health Care Proxy & How to Be a Health Care Proxy.” That’s also why we’ve assembled the FAQs below to clear up some of the most common points of confusion.

What is a health care proxy?

A health care proxy (also called a health care agent or Power of Attorney for Health Care) is the person you choose to make health care decisions for you if you’re too sick to make them for yourself. Your proxy can talk with your doctors, consult your medical records, and make decisions about tests, procedures, and other treatment.

Is a health care proxy the same as an advance directive?

“Advance directive” is a general term for any written health care instruction specifying your wishes or naming a proxy. It encompasses both health care proxy forms and living wills. It states which medical treatments you want or don’t want if you are no longer able to make decisions on your own (for example, if you’re in a coma).

What if I want to choose more than one person to be my proxy?

It’s generally advisable not to name two people to serve as co-proxies — because if they disagree, the situation can become complicated. The rules for this vary from state to state: some states allow you to name co-proxies, and some states limit you to one at a time. In all states, you can name an alternate proxy if your primary proxy is unable to serve. It’s a good idea to name an alternate proxy.

What if I don’t want to pick a family member?

Sometimes people feel obligated to choose their spouse, or their adult child — even when they don’t think that person is the best choice to follow their wishes. It’s okay if you want to choose someone who’s not a family member — even if your family pushes back at first.

NOTE: Be sure you tell your family beforehand who you’ve chosen as your proxy. You can say, “I chose [my friend] because she’ll be able to speak for me without the emotional conflict my family members may face.” Even if it creates tension, it is better for them to find out who your proxy is before a medical crisis.

What if I don’t want my spouse/partner to be my proxy?

Sometimes it is difficult for a partner or spouse to be a proxy. For example, they may find it too difficult to agree to end treatment for their loved one, even when you have made your wishes very clear. In this case, it might be wiser to choose someone else.

Are there any rules about who can’t legally be my proxy?

Yes. Be sure to check your state’s rules. Here are a few simple restrictions on who you can choose to be your proxy:

  • You may not choose someone under age 18 (in Alabama and Nebraska, under 19).
  • If you’re a patient in a health care facility, you may not choose an employee of that facility (unless the person is a relative).
  • You may not choose a member of your current health care team, including your doctor, nurse, etc.

What if I want to change my proxy?

Sometimes people change their mind about who they want to be their proxy. Maybe the person they chose moved away, or the relationship changed — or for any reason, the person no longer feels like the right one for the job.

It’s okay to change your proxy. If you do, be sure to fill out a new proxy form and tell your family and your health care team about the change. You can just say, “I’ve been thinking it over, and I wanted you to know that I’ve decided to change my proxy. Thank you so much, but I won’t need you to take on this responsibility for me.”

What if I don’t have someone I would like to be my proxy?

Someone may not come to mind immediately. Remember that your proxy doesn’t have to be a family member. It could be a friend, a more distant relative, or someone at your place of worship.

Even if you don’t appoint a person to be your health care proxy (your agent), it’s a good idea to complete the proxy form, and an advance directive that lists medical treatments that you would or would not want if you became terminally ill and unable to make your own decisions.

For more information, visit our toolkit “How to Choose a Health Care Proxy & How to Be a Health Care Proxy.”

2 Responses

  1. John says:

    This quite informative. I didn’t know what these health proxies up until now. I think I’ll have one to be my proxy in-case I get sick and unable to work. It’s kinda tiring to go to hospitals while you’re severely sick and have to wait the line.

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