What's a Health Care Proxy and Why Do I Need One?

Closeup of senior woman's hands as she signs a document.The senior population across the United States has increased to more than 54 million people since 2019. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of Americans 65 and older will rise to 80.8 million by 2040.

As people age, their health care needs increase. Seniors deal with chronic and acute medical conditions that can land them in the hospital unexpectedly. A health care proxy will ensure that your medical treatment preferences are honored if you can't express them yourself.

What Is a Health Care Proxy?

A health care proxy is a person you appoint to make medical decisions if you lose consciousness or your physical or mental health has deteriorated so much that you can't express your wishes for medical treatment. You name a health care proxy in a document called an advance directive.

Naming a health care proxy is important because having an agent before you fall ill helps protect patient autonomy. If you don't have a health care proxy, your family will have to guess about your preferences for medical treatment, or worse, your preferences will be ignored altogether.

Who Should I Name as My Health Care Proxy?

Typically, seniors have their spouse, children, other family members, or trusted friends act as their agents. Your health care proxy should carefully follow your instructions and not be influenced by others. A good medical power of attorney should also possess the following qualities:

  • Trustworthiness
  • Commitment to following through on your wishes
  • Careful attention to detail
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Knowledge of your medical condition and history

Can You Have Two Health Care Proxies?

The rules may vary by state, but in the majority of cases, you are permitted to appoint one agent. There may be the ability to appoint an alternate agent.

Health Care Proxy vs. Medical and Financial Powers of Attorney

  • A medical power of attorney and a health care proxy are two names for the same type of document, depending on your state. 
  • A financial power of attorney allows the individual you have appointed to act in your place when it comes to money matters should you become incapacitated.
  • A health care proxy gives an agent the authority to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to communicate your decisions.

Learn more about handling disputes that may arise between your financial power of attorney and health care proxy.

When Do I Need an Advance Directive?

It is prudent to have an advance directive as a part of your estate plan. You should complete an advance directive before you are incapacitated.

An advance directive is a document a person uses to record their medical treatment preferences for lifesaving care. An advance directive becomes a part of your medical record and is only used in an emergency or for end-of-life care.

Seniors should get an advance directive as soon as possible. Older people are at higher risk of chronic and acute diseases that could lead to medical emergencies. If you suffer from one or more of the following illnesses, you should also consider drafting an advance directive:

  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Cancer
  • Hypertension
  • Kidney Disease/Kidney Failure
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Heart Disease

How Do I Get an Advance Directive?

Every state across the country allows a version of an advance directive, although the document may have a different name depending on the state where you live. Advance directives are sometimes called living wills, medical directives, or durable powers of attorney.

Some states have a standard form you must complete to serve as your advance directive. Other states allow people to draft their own documents. If you complete a standardized form or have an attorney draft an original document, make sure you review it thoroughly to ensure it correctly reflects your wishes.

Speak to an elder law attorney in your area to learn how to complete an advance directive.