Making Healthcare Decisions Ahead

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It's a trying time for the entire family having to watch a loved one's health decline. It can be even more stressful and confusing when medical decisions must be made, and family members debate healthcare decisions and question who best knows the patient's wishes. Today marks the sixth annual National Healthcare Decisions Day, and Northwestern Medicine experts are encouraging patients to plan ahead, express their wishes and document their healthcare decisions, so there's a plan in place for families to follow.

Advanced directives are a free and relatively easy to complete document that can alleviate this stress by making one's wishes clear, so family members may act accordingly. There are two main forms of advanced directives, power of attorney for healthcare and living will. Power of attorney for healthcare names a specific individual designated to make medical decisions on behalf of the patient, whereas a living will spells out what kind of medical treatments and life-sustaining measures physicians should carry out. Doctors rely on these documents only when patients are unable to make decisions due to the severity of their medical condition.

"Advanced directives have the power to lift the burden of confusion from family and friends during a health crisis, allowing them to focus their energy on supporting the patient and one another," said Kathy Neely, MD, chair of the Medical Ethics Committee at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "The person named by the patient can speak on behalf of the patient and collaborate with the healthcare team to make decisions as stated in the document."

Neely encourages all adults to thoughtfully choose a decision maker, and to prepare a Power of Attorney document to name that person. And, of course, to discuss their thoughts about medical care with the person they have identified to act on their behalf, referred to as their agent. The agent may be a family member, partner, or good friend – anyone the individual selects.

"Once you complete your Power of Attorney document, make it known," said Neely. "Far too often family and physicians do not know these documents exist."

At Northwestern Memorial, all advance directives presented to the health care team are scanned into the hospital's electronic medical record and patients have an opportunity to confirm that the directive is still current at the time of admission or provide a new document.

The idea of creating an advanced directive can be daunting, since most people do not wish to think about situations that warrant the document. However, experts say completing an advanced directive does not have to be a sad task.

"Having an advanced directive in place puts you in control and should foster peace of mind," adds Neely.

Neely recommends looking at advanced directives like life insurance or estate planning.

"This is yet another way to lighten the burden on our loved ones," adds Neely. "Serious illness is not something people like to think about, but by doing a little bit of planning, one can put things in order for their family in case the situation ever arises."

For more information about advanced directives and to obtain links to the forms, click here. For more information on National Healthcare Decisions Day visit /www.nhdd.org/.