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What is an Advance Health Care Directive?

By Donn Saylor
Updated May 17, 2024
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An Advance Health Care Directive is a set of specific instructions created by an individual that outlines his health care plans should he become unable to make decisions regarding care. Also known as an advance directive, an advance decision, a personal directive, or a living will, these types of legal documents name a person to make decisions on the part of the individual, who, by the time the directive is needed, cannot make decisions on his or her own behalf. An advance health care directive is filed with the government, and copies are generally supplied by the individual to his or her doctors and to the persons named.

The idea behind advanced directives came about with the onset of advanced forms of medical technology. Though technology had increased by leaps and bounds, studies showed that end-of-life care was still seriously lacking. A large number of people ended up in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, and death was often prolonged and painful. This inspired the creation of the first advance health care directives, which gave an individual an incontrovertible voice in how he or she was treated near or at the end of life. It has since become a legally-recognized decree and an important part of health care law.

There are two parts to an advance health care directive. The first part entails laying out detailed instructions for treatment should end-of-life care become necessary. The directive may include the patient's wishes regarding the usage of life support equipment, medical technology, and feeding devices, to name a few factors.

In the second part of the advance health care directive, an individual appoints a third party to be a health care agent on his or her behalf. This might be a family member, friend, or attorney, and this person is imbued with the legal authority to make decisions on the part of the individual. The agent is a vital role, and those completing advance directives are typically advised not to take this decision lightly. The agent should be someone highly trusted, close enough to the individual to respect his or her personal wishes, and clearheaded enough to make decisions under highly emotional circumstances.

There are a series of forms to fill out when completing an advance care directive. These forms include information on an individual's agent, directions regarding specific end-of-life treatment options, organ donation wishes, and contact information for the primary care physician. After the forms are completed, they are signed, notarized, and filed with the government. Photocopies are given to the agent, primary doctors, and any other loved ones the individual deems appropriate.

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