What role do I play as a health care proxy?

A loved one, maybe a parent, spouse, or friend, mentioned that they are preparing a Health Care Directive with the hope that you would be willing to play the role of health care proxy. Initially, you should take some time to consider what being a proxy entails and how comfortable you are serving in such a capacity. This is not a task not to be taken lightly and often only becomes necessary in the direst of circumstances. The objective of this article is to offer guidance as you consider what it means to serve as someone’s health care proxy.

Consider this scenario. You are a health care proxy (sometimes called a health care power of attorney, agent, representative or surrogate) and you are called to action because the person who appointed you remains hospitalized and unconscious after a serious accident. Eventual recovery is probable with immediate treatment, but the doctor needs someone to choose between two procedures. That someone is you. The first option is a very invasive surgical procedure that may allow for a more rapid and complete recovery. It will require the person to be transferred to a specialized hospital away from family. The second option is also surgical, but tends to be more commonly undertaken and far less likely to experience complications. This surgery can be completed where the patient is currently hospitalized, but it has a lengthier period of recovery. The doctor shares with you that this second surgery is known to offer a lower likelihood of full recovery. What do you elect to do on behalf of your comatose friend?

The health care proxy’s job is first and foremost to be the patient’s advocate. The proxy must speak with doctors about the various treatment options, consider medical records and history, and ultimately make decisions in the best interests of the patient. A health care proxy is designed to make the same decisions that the person receiving treatment would if they could communicate their wishes directly to the health care provider. This is why it is so important for the proxy and the principal to communicate prior to the principal’s incapacity.

Undertaking the role of health care proxy probably sounds like a complicated and stress-filled process. Of course, any situation that requires the proxy to take action is going to be challenging, but that makes the proxy’s position ever more important. It is absolutely crucial to have conversations about the principal’s beliefs and values prior to agreeing to serve as a health care proxy. If an Health Care Directive exists, the health care proxy should review the document and ask the principal questions. Effective advocacy requires a working knowledge of the way in which the principal would have weighed the pros and cons of a hypothetical medical situation. As a nominating principal and a potential health care proxy, have a detailed conversation by considering multiple scenarios, talking about your preferences, and creating a detailed understanding that both parties feel “comfortable” executing if tragedy strikes.

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