Who would you pick to make medical decisions for you if you were no longer able to make them on your own? That’s the question answered by a health care proxy, also known as a durable power of attorney for health care or a medical power of attorney. Your health care proxy has the power to consult with doctors, review your medical records, and make important decisions about your medical treatment.
And a proxy might be more important than you realize: A 2014 study found that nearly 50 percent of adults age 65 and older required at least some involvement from a family member or another surrogate decision-maker within 48 hours of being hospitalized. So it’s important both that you create a health care proxy and that you select someone you trust, whether that’s a close friend or family member.
If you don’t name a proxy yourself, you run the risk of your loved ones struggling over who has the right to make medical decisions for you in a crisis—or having someone you don’t want making those decisions.
A health care proxy (also known as an agent or surrogate) can make choices about your medical care, including tests, medications and surgeries—but only if you’re unable to speak for yourself. They can authorize or refuse tests and treatments, pain management assistance, and even life-support procedures. They can also choose which hospital, medical facility, nursing home, or hospice center you move to for your care.
In order to help inform those decisions, a proxy has access to your medical history or charts and can approve the release of your medical records to other providers. And when it comes to covering the expense of your care, they can take legal action on your behalf and apply for Medicare, Medicaid, or other programs or insurance benefits on your behalf. (However, you should also have a separate durable power of attorney document in place appointing someone to handle your legal and financial affairs more broadly.)
How to choose your health care proxy
A health care proxy can play a vital role in your care, if needed. It’s crucial that the person be someone you trust to access your sensitive medical information and to understand what’s important to you.
A health care proxy can be any adult—a spouse, sibling, relative, or even close friend—but you should take care to select someone whose emotional connection to you won’t impact their decision to act in your best interests. For example, if you feel strongly that you wouldn’t want to stay on life support indefinitely, but know your sister would struggle to follow through with your choice in a crisis, she may not be the best person for the role.
One important part of establishing a health care proxy is getting that person up to date on your current health and wishes—before a crisis hits. That means selecting someone who you’ll be comfortable talking with about your medical history, including current health conditions and symptoms. They’ll also need an understanding of what medical treatments you want and don’t want, in the event they have to take over the decision-making.
Beyond those factors, consider that your health care proxy should ideally have good communication skills (to be able to relay your wishes to doctors) and take their commitment as your proxy seriously.
Make it official
Forms to select a health care proxy vary from state to state, so you’ll need to ensure that you’ve carefully completed the relevant form. In some states, naming a health care proxy is one part of a larger living will or advance directive. In those cases, you can indicate the person you name as your health care proxy as part of the living will form. Five Wishes is a straightforward advance directive that works in 42 states, and the site walks you through the entire process in plain language. For $5 you can order a printed copy or fill it out online. Or find your state’s official forms here:
After you’ve filled out the document, you’ll need two adults (not including your health care proxy) to also sign the form. You do not need a lawyer to create a health care proxy; just make sure the form is signed and witnessed according to the directions on the form.
Give copies to your health care providers, health care proxy, spouse, and any close friends who you think might be involved in your care. You should also be sure to carry a copy on your person, whether that means tucking it into your wallet or purse, so medical professionals know who to contact in case of emergency.
By Kate Rockwood