What is a Health Care Proxy?

A health care proxy, at its most basic definition, is a spokesperson for an individual who may, due to cognitive issues or physical limitations, be unable to make medical decisions on his or her own.

In essence, a proxy knows and understands your wishes and desires when it comes to medical care and even end-of-life situations and will speak and make decisions for you in the event that you can't do it yourself.

A health care proxy is also known as a medical power of attorney. It's important to create a health care power of attorney or medical power of attorney document that will be recognized and legal if your state, region, or province in the event of emergency situations. It is an extremely important document, and the agent acting as a proxy or the medical power of attorney should be trusted, reliable, and capable of making decisions on a patient's behalf.

Limitations of health care proxies

Just because someone creates a health care proxy does not mean that he or she is incapable of making their own decisions regarding medical care and treatment. For example, if dad has created a proxy or medical power of attorney document, he will still be able to make his own decisions regarding medical care as long as he is cognitively able and competent to do so.

In some cases, the medical power of attorney or proxy agent must abide by certain limitations depending on legal jurisdictions. Most health care proxies or agents are close family friends or family members of the individual familiar with their wishes and desires regarding medical treatments and procedures. 

Basic health care proxy structure

A health care proxy document includes a variety of information as well as limitations, rights, and expectations. Such guidelines depend on jurisdiction or region. However, certain stipulations are generally provided within such a proxy and may include but are not limited to:

  • Name and contact information of the primary agent and an alternative agent if required or desired.
  • The name, date, and signature of the individual that the proxy or a medical power of attorney is designed for.
  • The duration of the proxy. Keep in mind that when a date for ending the health care proxy or medical power of attorney timeframe is not included it means that the document is meant for "in perpetuity" or that there is no expiration date. An expiration date must be specified in the event that the individual desiring the spokesperson’s services are only for a limited time frame.

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  • Specific instructions. For example, a patient or individual may not want to be placed on life support systems or feeding tubes under any circumstances. Others may permit such use for a specified amount of time. Some patients may not want blood transfusions, dialysis treatments, or life-saving measures, while others do.  It is important for the patient to define such instruction or limitations are. If there are no restrictions on life-saving measures, treatments or procedures, that fact must be written into the document.
  • Instructions or desires regarding organ or tissue donation.
  • Signature of required number of adult and competent witnesses that the document is valid, and that all parties involved are cognitively aware and competent to make such decisions. (In most cases, witnesses must be over 18 years of age). The individual requiring the proxy and a designated agent do not qualify as witnesses in most cases.

It is advisable that any health care proxy document or medical power of attorney stipulations and documentation be made in the presence of and following consultation with an attorney.Please see your attorney to get consul on the best way to move forward.

After the document has been signed by all required parties, one form is to be given to the individual’s primary and ancillary healthcare providers, and one copy is given to the proxy agent, any spouse, close friends, or family members who request a copy.

Speak to a lawyer for additional information regarding health-care proxy or medical power of attorney documents and the legalities and limitations of such documents in your region.

For further information please see Caring Connections a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO)

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