Northside Health Library

Health care agents

Alternate Names

Durable power of attorney for health care; Health care proxy

What Is a Health Care Agent?

A health care agent is someone you choose to make health care decisions for you when you cannot.

A health care agent is also called a health care proxy. This person will act only when you are not able to.

Why Have a Health Care Agent

When you are unable to speak for yourself due to an illness, your health care providers may be unclear as to what type of care you would like.

Your family members may be uncertain or disagree about the type of medical care you should receive. Decisions about your medical care may then be made by doctors, hospital administrators, a court-appointed guardian, or judges.

A health care agent chosen by you can help your health care providers, family, and friends make decisions during a stressful time.

Your agent’s duty is to see that your wishes are followed. If your wishes aren’t known, your agent should try to decide what you want.

Health care agents are not required, but they are the best way to be sure your wishes for health care treatment are followed.

What the Health Care Agent Can Do

If you have an advance directive or living will, your health care agent can make sure your wishes are followed. Your agent’s choices come before anyone else’s wishes for you.

If you do not have a living will or an advanced directive, your health care agent will be the one to help your health care providers make important choices.

Your health care agenthas no control over your money.Your agent also can’t be made to pay your bills.

What an agent can and can’t do differs by state. Check your state laws.In most states your agent can:

  • Choose or refuse life-sustaining and other medical treatment on your behalf
  • Agree to and then stop treatment if your health doesn’t improve
  • Access and release your medical records
  • Request an autopsy and donate your organs, unless you’ve stated otherwise on your advance directive

Before you choose a health care agent, you should find out whether your state allows a health care agent to do the following:

  • Refuse or withdraw life-enhancing care
  • Refuse or stop tube feeding or other life-sustaining care -- even if you haven’t stated on your advance directive that you don’t want these treatments
  • Order sterilization or abortion

Choosing Your Health Care Agent

Choose a person who knows your treatment wishes and is willing to carry them out. Be sure to tell your agent what’s important to you.

  • You can name a family member, close friend, minister, priest, or rabbi.
  • You should name only one person as your agent.
  • Then name one or two other people as backups. You need a backup person in case your first choice can’t be reached when needed.

Talk to each person you are thinking of naming as your agent or alternate. Do this before you decide who should carry out your wishes.Your agent should be:

  • An adult, 18 years or older
  • Someone you trust and can talk to about the care you want and what is important to you
  • Someone who supports your treatment choices

In many states, your agent can't be:

  • Your doctor or health care provider
  • An employee of your doctor or of a hospital, nursing home, or hospice program where you receive care, even if the person is a trusted family member

What You Need to Do

Think about your beliefs about life-sustaining treatment. Life-sustaining treatment is the use of equipment to prolong your life when your body organs stop working well.

A health care proxy is a simple legal paper that you fill out. You can get a form online, at your doctor’s office, hospital, or senior citizen centers.

  • In the form you will list the name of your health care agent, and any backups.
  • Many states require witness signatures on the form.

A health care proxy is not a living will. A living will is a written statement that can include your health care wishes. Unlike a living will, the health care proxy allows you to name a health care agent to carry out those wishes if you cannot.

It is important to know that you can change your mind about health care choices at any time. If you change your mind, or if your health changes, talk to your doctor. Be sure to tell your health care agent about any changes in your wishes.

Review Date: 4/4/2012
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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