Why Making Healthcare Decisions Early Matters
Life is unpredictable. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead.
Imagine a situation where you couldn’t make choices about your own medical care. In that situation, wouldn’t you want to be sure that you received care that was in keeping with your beliefs and wishes? What if making choices ahead of time could spare your loved ones from having to make tough choices on their own or guess at your wishes?
April 16 is National Healthcare Decisions Day, and as a specialist in palliative medicine, I regularly see the need for making healthcare decisions in advance.
Making The Choices
When it comes to your medical care, you may not always be able to choose for yourself. Injury or illness can leave you unconscious or without the ability to think and make decisions, no matter what your age or health status. When that happens to you, medical professionals like myself look to your family or loved ones for guidance.
Modern medicine offers some amazing capabilities. Specialized care and advanced life support procedures can help keep patients breathing even when their minds and bodies can’t do it on their own. Some people want that kind of care, and some do not.
Some questions to consider include:
- What matters to me most at this time in my life?
- Would I want resuscitation attempts with CPR or to be placed on a breathing assistance machine? If I couldn’t breathe on my own, how long would I want that kind of care to be used?
- Would my answers change if I wasn’t expected to live for very long because of the severity of my condition?
- Would my answers change if I became disabled, needed constant care from others, developed dementia or other cognitive problems, or could no longer recognize my family, friends or loved ones?
Thinking about these issues now may be difficult or unpleasant. Despite that, I encourage everyone to consider these questions. It’s better to choose for yourself than for loved ones to have to guess at what you’d want. This lessens the stress on your family to make these decisions in a time of crisis.
Your primary care provider is also an excellent resource. Your primary care provider knows your personal health history and can help answer questions about which medical interventions are likely to be helpful, given your overall health and values.
Write Them Down
You know what kind of care you would want or not want in case you couldn’t choose for yourself. Now what? The next step is to have a record of your choice.
There are two types of documents that are of key importance here, but you can also have them prepared together into a single item:
- Power of attorney: This document names the person or persons whom are empowered to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. An individual designated with this power is typically known as a “healthcare proxy” or “surrogate” (This can be different from a financial power of attorney, so if you have completed one of those, be sure it covers healthcare and not just financial decisions).
- Advance directive (also known as “living will”): This document specifies the kind of care that you do or do not want in case you are unable to make your wishes known. These documents can also be written with some flexibility for your medical providers or healthcare surrogate, in case your situation can be helped or remedied in an unexpected way.
When it comes to the legal procedures for these documents, there are different options to handle this: You can have these documents prepared by an attorney specifically for you, or you can print your own using pre-written documents easily found from agencies via the Internet or at a public library, which you can then sign in the presence of a notary.
Have A Conversation
Once you have the appropriate documentation completed, you can place it on file with your primary care provider and with a local hospital. If you do this, make sure family members or loved ones know about the document. Documents kept in a safe deposit box, with an attorney, or in a filing cabinet at home may not be easily accessible in an emergency. If family members know that you have these on file with medical providers or facilities and are aware of your preferences, it can make following your wishes much easier.
The motto for National Healthcare Decisions Day 2016 is, “It always seems too early, until it’s too late.” These are definitely not easy choices to make and questions to ask, but that is why it’s so important to take the time to choose. Your loved ones want to do what is best for you. What you do today can help both you and them just in case the unexpected happens.
If you want to know more about this topic, visit www.nhdd.org or www.americanbar.org for more info and resources, which you can use to get started.
Dr. Melanie Farrell is a physician with board certifications in internal medicine and palliative medicine, practicing with Owensboro Health Medical Group.
This column originally appeared in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer.