Unfortunately, failing to tell loved ones and physicians what type of care you would want if you suffer from an illness which will eventually lead to your death is all too common an experience. It is important that Massachusetts residents have a Health Care Proxy (HCP), which designates an agent to make medical decisions on behalf of an incapacitated person. However, the HCP is not a substitute for candid conversation. If the health care agent named in the HCP does not actually know one’s wishes — or is not around or available to articulate them — then a person could well receive unwanted aggressive treatment in a medical emergency.
So, there are several things which someone who makes a health care proxy needs to do.
First, you need to provide a copy of the HCP to your primary care provider and to the hospital where you primarily receive treatment. If your primary care doctor is affiliated with a hospital system, the doctor may be able to scan your health care proxy into a central system where it will be visible to all the doctors and hospitals in that system.
Second, you need to talk to your health care agent, alternate health care agent, physicians and family members about your wishes. You may think that your loved ones and doctors know what you might want, but if you are at risk of developing or have developed a serious illness, you need to be candid with those people about your views concerning treating illness or withholding treatment. This is particularly important for people with chronic illnesses, who should have regular conversations as the illness progresses. Remember that people are not mind-readers and that they may have an impression of what you might want based on conversations held years ago, when you may have had different opinions about treatment than you may have now.
Third, Massachusetts residents with late-stage illness should talk to their care provider about MOLST (Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment). Unlike a health care proxy, which is a legal document, the MOLST is prepared by the treating physician and patient together and made a part of the medical record. It contains specific information concerning the patient’s desires for how end-of-life care should be managed under different scenarios. This sounds like a good idea — as long as the paperwork actually follows the patient in either electronic or paper form. It is a good idea for any patient with a MOLST in place to have a copy prominently posted in the house (say, on the refrigerator door) so that EMTs will know not to start CPR or other treatment if you do not want it and provide a copy to your health care agent.