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Last updated: 01/28/2009
A living will is a legal document in which patients instruct health-care providers about their wishes with respect to medical procedures should they become incapacitated. The living will and the durable medical power of attorney are two federally mandated parts of what is known as advanced medical directives.
Advanced medical directives are legal mechanisms to assure that patients' wishes with respect to a number of medical procedures are carried out in their final days or when they are incapacitated. The documents reflect patients' rights of consent and medical choice under conditions whereby patients can no longer choose for themselves what medical interventions they wish to undergo.
In 1990, recognizing the importance of patient treatment wishes at the end of life, Congress enacted the Patient Self-Determination Act (PSDA). This federal law ensures that patients admitted to hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, HMOs, and hospices be informed of their rights under state law to prepare advance health care directives and have the documents entered into their medical record. Each state has different requirements for the living will and the power of attorney. It is important to research medical directives before an accident or illness make that an impossibility. Living wills have become customary in many parts of the country and are broadly respected by health care providers. However, a high percentage of Americans do not have a living will and/or a power of attorney to ensure its compliance.
The living will can be a very broad or a very narrow document, according to the wishes of the patient. It is the patient's declaration, a written statement of what he or she wants to occur in the event of serious accident or illness. It is primarily directed to medical personnel about the type of care the patient wishes to have, or wishes not to have, under situations of terminal illness or incapacitation.
The document commonly includes the kinds of medical procedures that are usually administered to patients who are seriously ill. These may include:
- transfusions of blood and blood products
- cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- diagnostic tests
- administration of drugs
- tissue and organ donation
- use of a respirator
The living will declaration can also include issues of pain medication, food, and water. Most states recognize that relief from pain and discomfort are procedures that most people wish to have and these are not considered life-prolonging treatments. In some states, however, food and water may be considered life prolonging. and the consideration to forego them may fall within the rights of the patient to refuse. What may be included in the living will depends upon the state.
The living willâ€”in some states called instructions, directive to physicians, or declarationâ€”does not require a surrogate (an appointed person) to make decisions for the patient. Most states include these types of instructions in their medical durable power of attorney forms. Not all states, however, recognize separate living wills as legally binding; California, for instance, does not.
The living will should be given careful thought, and be talked about with the patient's family, physician, and care providers. It is highly recommended that discussion of patient wishes occurs before medical treatment is necessary, because the living will involves both the patient's family and loved ones, who are expected to assist in its implementation. It should be researched for the state in which the patient is most likely to receive medical care, and be dated and signed before two witnesses.
The living will may be drafted on standardized forms, with or without the assistance of an attorney. The document may be revoked in writing, or orally, by either the patient (the person making the advance directive) or by a designated proxy (a surrogate) at any time. If the patient does not specify in the living will a particular element of treatment or treatment withdrawal, then it is not included. It is very important that living wills be as specific and detailed as possible.
Most hospitals offer a medical directives resource, commonly in the religious office attached to the hospital. Coupled with a durable medical power of attorney (a person chosen to make medical decisions on the patient's behalf if the patient cannot make his or her own decisions), the living will ensures in advance that patient wishes about the quality of death are respected.
The living will, whether prepared prior to hospitalization or prepared once the patient is admitted, is placed in the patient's medical chart along with other documents such as the medical power of attorney declaration. Providers are required by federal law to honor this declaration of the patient's wishes. The document serves as a statement of intentions on the part of the patient and can be very important to family members, health care providers, and patient proxy during a very distressful and disconcerting time.
See alsoDo not resuscitate order.
Matousek, M. "Start the Conversation: The Modern Maturity Guide to End-of-Life Care.""The Last Taboo."Modern Maturity (September-October 2000).
Nancy McKenzie, PhD
Last Updated: 01/28/2009
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