When you assume the role of the health care proxy of a loved one, you make crucial medical decisions on their behalf. If your loved one becomes incapacitated and cannot communicate with health care providers, you are responsible for ensuring health care providers respect their preferences for care.
If you are a health care proxy, your role is to protect your loved one’s interests when they are vulnerable. Health care proxies have an essential, yet challenging role, as medical decisions can significantly impact patient outcomes.
A health care proxy is a person who makes health care decisions for someone else – that is, by proxy. These decision-makers include health care agents, who the patient appoints via power of attorney, guardians authorized by the court, or legal surrogates. Legal surrogates are close family members called upon to make decisions when the patient has no agent or guardian.
The role of health care proxy includes:
Depending on the circumstances, you might know in advance that you will serve as a health care proxy as in the event of helping an ailing spouse or parent over a long period of time, or you might take on the role unexpectedly. Should you have time to prepare for your role, keep several things in mind:
When you assume the role of surrogate decision-maker, it is crucial to understand the patient’s wishes and values. Since you do not know how their condition will change, it is a good idea to have conversations about their medical preferences early and often.
Consider speaking with their other close family members if your loved one cannot communicate. Although you are the final decision maker, those close to the patient may be able to provide additional information.
When you make medical decisions for an individual, consider taking the following steps.
Health care proxies are often called upon to make end-of-life decisions. For instance, doctors might ask you to decide whether to prolong your loved one’s life or allow them to pass naturally. You might be responsible for consenting on the patient’s behalf to medical research or experimental treatments.
As the health care proxy, you have an essential role in the decision-making process. When you make end-of-life decisions for the patient, following their wishes is paramount.
Refer to any advance directives they may have. Perhaps they had a living will expressing their desire to either prolong life or provide noninvasive care to keep them comfortable as they pass. Their health care power of attorney might also include end-of-life and funeral instructions. Read more in our article: What a Family Caregiver Needs to Know
Sometimes, you might have to decide whether the patient participates in medical research. It is essential to understand the purpose of the study, as well as the risks and potential benefits. Research participation is optional. You can decline if it would not benefit your loved one.
Being a health care decision-maker can be stressful, and you could experience grief as the patient’s health declines. Just as you care for your loved one, you must care for yourself to avoid burning out.
Strategies for coping with stress and emotions that may arise in your role as a health care proxy include getting enough sleep, exercising, practicing meditation, and seeking mental health counseling.
Consulting with Lynchburg Elder Law Attorney Robert W. Haley can help you understand your role. You can schedule a no obligation call with our team to ask questions about your role if you have been assigned as a health care proxy or agent.. You may benefit from checking out the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging’s "how-to” guide on serving as a health care proxy. Consider contacting a geriatric care manager and your estate planning attorney for additional support.
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