Part of life is the unforeseen event. It’s why we take out insurance on our homes, cars, health and lives. We want to be covered in case of accidents or emergencies that we just don’t see coming.
The same philosophy applies to health care proxies. You may not always be capable of making important medical decisions on your own. Relying on unassigned family members, some who may have differing opinions, or your physician places a great burden on those individuals. Without a health care proxy, as a patient, you would face an uncertain future.
One of the most important and responsible decisions you can make is assigning a health care proxy. This is a legal document that allows a person to address what care they may or may not want. A health care proxy also grants the agent the ability to decide depending on the situation. Individuals can lose the capacity to direct their own health care either temporarily (e.g., due to medication side effects), or permanently (e.g., due to dementia). If you never lose decision-making abilities, the proxy serves as insurance in the event that you need it.
A health care proxy is a way of taking control over your illness and over future medical decisions. One of the most common proxy orders is “do not resuscitate (DNR).” In many cases, the odds of successful resuscitation are not very good. In these situations, it is important to remember that resuscitation only restarts the heart. It does not resolve underlying medical problems such as brain injuries or cancer. It is important to have a discussion with your agents about your medical wishes as well as with your physician. They both should be given a copy of your health care proxy. Resuscitation is required by law unless you state otherwise. A proxy can also address other medical procedures such as artificial fluids and nutrition, dialysis, antibiotics, etc.
You will be asked to specify your agent. Common proxy agents include spouses, children, or close friends — anyone in whom you place an implicit amount of trust. You will also be asked to name one alternate agent. You will be asked to provide contact information for your agent and alternate. The health care proxy form also contains a place to specify your exact medical wishes in the event that you are unable to make medical decisions and lack the ability to understand the consequences of those decisions.
The thought of completing a form for an unforeseen medical emergency may be unpleasant, but try to remember why it is necessary. These forms are legal documents and hospitals and their medical personnel are required to follow them. If you are reading this outside of New York State, be aware of the proxy laws and regulations in your place of residence, as they tend to differ.
Again, please try to think of health care proxies as protection for the future. I have a health care proxy and truly believe everyone should. Obtaining a proxy may serve to not only ease your mind, but also the minds of those who would otherwise carry out your wishes.
Roswell Park's team of social workers would be happy to answer any questions you may have about this process. Contact the Psychosocial Oncology department at 716-845-8022.