What Is The Difference Between A Health Care Directive And A POLST Form?

This question is one that many patients and their families ask. Even though a Health Care Directive and a Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form deliver similar instructions, it is important to know the particulars of both.

A Health Care Directive is a unique legal document that provides individuals and those close to them with peace of mind in the event of unforeseen circumstances like a car accident or a fall. If a person becomes incapacitated and is no longer able to communicate wishes for his or her health or personal care, a Health Care Directive allows him or her to convey treatment preferences to doctors and to appoint a Health Care Agent to act on his or her behalf. It is smart for all adults to have one prepared to ensure that their wishes are followed medically. Keep in mind that Health Care Directive laws and the definitions of key medical terms vary from state to state, which makes it particularly helpful to meet with an Elder Law attorney to ensure that your Health Care Directive has been drafted and executed properly.

A POLST form is different than a Health Care Directive primarily because it must be written and signed by a physician. When filling out the form, doctors converse directly with their patients and record directions about what to do if they become unable to speak for themselves. Examples of topics that doctors and patients discuss are who should make medical decisions on behalf of the patient (if a Health Care Agent has not already been appointed) and whether or not to attempt life-sustaining measures, such as CPR after cardiac arrest. While Health Care Directives are prepared in advance of medical issues, POLST forms are completed when a new critical medical condition arises or when changes to a current condition take place.

What makes a POLST form particularly useful is its ability to give end-of-life instructions when no Health Care Directive is available. However, those with a Health Care Directive can also complete a POLST form with their doctor since it adds more detail to the guidelines already established. Plus, POLST forms are easily recognizable – the doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals attending to patients can quickly navigate and spot the key information on the document.

For general information about Health Care Directives from the Minnesota Department of Health, visit www.health.state.mn.us/divs/fpc/profinfo/advdir.htm. If you would like more information about POLST forms, check out www.polst.org. To learn about state-specific laws and terms or to draft a Health Care Directive, be sure to consult with an Elder Law attorney.

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