I've had a column topic on my mind for awhile. When my sister underwent surgery a couple of months ago, the subject became paramount. Then, upon signing her Medical Power of Attorney, I decided the time had come to relay this vital info to readers. Before beginning, though, I urge everyone to be sure you're willing and able to assume these very crucial responsibilities.
Anyone who wishes the protection of a health care directive whether it's a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) or a Medical Power of Attorney, usually a free copy awaits you if you have a computer and a printer. (Obviously, if you want a lawyer to draw the form(s) up and you like to spend unnecessary money, please feel free.) While some forms vary from state to state, most require two witnesses (Georgia and Alabama) and others require the witnesses, plus a notary (Tennessee).
Should the physician(s) ascertain the patient lacks the mental capacity to make medical treatment decisions, the role of the agent/advocate comes into focus. Assuming the patient previously signed a DNR, all one must do is bring the document to the doctor's attention. If, on the other hand, no DNR is available, it's urgent you (the agent) first introduce yourself to the physician, medical team, and staff. Stay informed and ask questions about the patient's current condition and each time it changes. Then, learn as much as possible about your person's (the potential patient) health issues and medical treatment preferences, especially before the latter loses the ability to communicate these to you. All, some, or none of the following scenarios must be discussed so you can find out exactly which action(s) on his or her behalf the patient wishes:
• Any life support measures
• If a coma occurs
• Issuance of food or water
• Use of a ventilator
• Kidney dialysis
• Pain control
If you're the agent and it becomes evident a life-threatening situation might occur with the patient, first request the patient's medical records and then obtain information about his or her diagnosis, prognosis, and chances for recovery. Moreover, knowing treatment options is important. What's involved with each option, what are the risks or benefits, and what are the alternatives, if any? Are any short or long-term side effects possible and, if so, what are they? Check for consultations and second opinions and, further, make arrangements for authorization to transfer the patient to another physician or medical treatment center should it become necessary. It's definitely a good idea to consult a social worker or case manager who can provide pertinent info about services and facilities that may be available to the patient.
Should the patient die, your duties cease. Additionally, they end if he or she regains the mental capacity to make medical decisions or if you decide you no longer wish this responsibility. If a court decides to remove you, for any reason, as agent or if the patient revokes the health care directive that names you as agent, then obviously your role stops.
Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears every Sunday. You may contact her at email@example.com