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What Does a Healthcare Agent Do and How Do I Choose?

by Phil Levin, Esq. on July 3rd, 2019
Man asking questions

Today, I want to tackle two very important questions I receive often: “What is a Healthcare Agent?” and “How do I choose the right person for the job?”
Yet, before I answer these questions, let me start by saying that as an estate planning attorney, I work with families all the time who are literally barred from making medical decisions on their loved one’s behalf because they didn’t have the proper documentation in place when an accident or incapacity occurred.
It’s a devastating situation and, unfortunately, one we are seeing more and more of as strict privacy and HIPAA laws are put into place.
For that reason, I always advise every adult (including 18-year-olds who can no longer rely on mom or dad for help!) to educate themselves on this important subject and ultimately put a healthcare directive in place so someone always has legal permission to act on your behalf in an emergency.
What Does a Healthcare Agent Do?
If you’re not familiar with the role of a healthcare agent, this is essentially the person who will carry out your wishes regarding things like life-support, resuscitation, and feeding tubes if you are incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself. Your healthcare agent will also handle the day-to-day decision making regarding your medical care including (but not limited to):
Medication administration
Blood and blood products
Diagnostic tests
Dialysis
Surgery
Long-term care (e.g., nursing home assistance, home healthcare)
Hiring and firing medical personnel
Determining who can (and cannot) visit you during your hospital stay
Getting court authorization to obtain or withhold treatment if your wishes are not honored by a doctor or other healthcare professionals
How to Choose a Healthcare Agent
The choice of a healthcare agent requires very serious consideration. While it may initially seem like an easy choice, this is actually one of the most common areas people get stuck on when trying to complete their estate plan.
Remember, your healthcare agent could be called on to make some of the most difficult and heart-wrenching decisions they’ve ever faced in their life. The job could also be time-consuming, stressful, and emotionally draining depending on the nature of the emergency.
For these reasons, I would advise you to really take your time and thoroughly evaluate all possible candidates for the job. Here are the top three qualifications I ask my clients to consider when narrowing their search:
1. Location — In a true medical emergency, your healthcare agent may be called upon to make round-the-clock decisions until you are stable. If that occurs, you’ll want someone who lives close enough to meet with doctors and visit the hospital whenever necessary (which of course may also mean excluding people who travel a lot on business or have demanding jobs).
2. Medical Understanding — While your healthcare agent certainly doesn’t need a Ph.D. in science, you do want someone who is capable of understanding your medical condition and the choices presented to him or her by the doctors overseeing your care. That may also require you to weed out candidates who are overly squeamish or emotional about medical subjects to ensure the best decisions are made on your behalf.
3. Loyalty — The person you choose as healthcare agent should feel a sense of loyalty to you and your wishes to ensure your preferences are fully carried out in the face of emotional stress, personal disagreement, or pressure from other family members to make decisions contrary to those you have specified.
Of course, if after going through this brief checklist you still have questions about how to choose a healthcare agent, what an agent can do for you, or even how to limit the scope of your agent’s power during a medical emergency, I invite you to call our office to schedule a planning session. During this session, we can discuss your options and make sure you truly have the right documentation in place to protect your medical wishes if the unthinkable occurs.

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