What is a Healthcare Proxy? The Complete Guide

November 11, 2020

In an ideal world, we'd all age gracefully into our later years, staying in complete control of our important healthcare decisions. But the unfortunate reality is that many Americans will lose the ability or capacity to care for themselves as they age. According to a 2014 study, 50% of adults age 65 and older required at least minimal involvement from a family member or surrogate decision-maker after just two days of hospitalization.

What will you do if something unexpected happens to you and you're incapable of making critical healthcare decisions for yourself? Who will make them for you and how can you prepare yourself and loved ones for the tough choices that may need to made on your behalf?

Designating a trusted healthcare proxy is an integral part of healthcare planning. In this guide, we’ll cover what you need to know about a healthcare proxy, why having one is important, and how to create your own so that you and your loved ones are prepared for the future.

What is a healthcare proxy?

A healthcare proxy is essentially one of the suite of documents (along with a living will) that specifies a person’s medical wishes. In this case, it designates someone to act on your behalf for health care decisions if you're unable to. Here's the exact definition of a healthcare proxy, according to Medicare.org:

“A health care proxy is a document that names someone you trust as your proxy, or agent, to express your wishes and make health care decisions for you if you are unable to speak for yourself. A health care proxy may also be called a durable medical power of attorney or an appointment of a health care agent or health care surrogate. Naming a proxy can help ensure that you get the health care you prefer if you cannot communicate your wishes.”

While nobody likes to think about worst-case scenarios, creating a healthcare proxy while you’re still healthy helps you and your family prepare for future health care needs. 

What does a healthcare proxy do?

A healthcare proxy gives someone the right to make care and treatment decisions on your behalf. If you find yourself incapacitated and unable to communicate, the healthcare proxy document will serve the following purposes:

  • Specify your medical wishes and preferences, so your designated proxy doesn’t have to guess what you would want
  • Allow your designated agent to access health records and other essential information
  • Spare your loved ones the agony of making healthcare decisions they’re not sure you would want

What is the difference between a healthcare proxy and a power of attorney?

While both healthcare proxies and power of attorney (POA) documents give someone else the ability to make decisions on your behalf, they serve different purposes. In the broadest terms, power of attorney typically gives someone the power to make legally binding financial decisions on your behalf, while a healthcare proxy can make medical decisions for you if you're incapable or incapacitated.

What does 'Power of Attorney' mean?

A POA document gives another person the ability to make decisions about your finances on your behalf. In this document, you specify the powers you want to provide the agent. For example, you can give your agent the ability to sell property in your name or manage your retirement accounts. A POA document can be as narrow or as broad as you choose. 

Healthcare Proxy Document

A medical proxy (sometimes also called a “medical power of attorney”) is a type of advance directive that communicates your healthcare wishes. If you ever become incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself, the document will come into play. 

When you designate a healthcare proxy, you are giving someone else the power to make essential healthcare decisions on your behalf. In most cases, the designated proxy will have access to your medical records and will be able to communicate with your healthcare providers. 

How to set up a healthcare proxy

The first step in creating your healthcare proxy is considering who you wish to appoint as your agent. Your ideal proxy should be aware of:

  • Your attitudes toward illness, death, end-of-life, palliative care, and life-saving treatments
  • Your medical preferences regarding comfort and life-sustaining care, including but not limited to intubation, artificial hydration, and life support
  • Your religious and spiritual beliefs
  • Your feelings about preferred health care providers and institutes

If you have a proxy in mind, have a frank discussion with that person about their willingness to serve as your agent. This is a huge decision, so make sure your wishes are clearly communicated to your potential proxy so there's no confusion down the line. Ask tough questions. Answer tough questions. Now is the time to make define your ideal care for all potential scenarios. Choosing a loved one as your healthcare proxy may stir up some complicated emotions, and it’s important to discuss these and other end-of-life issues beforehand.

Once you’ve spoken to your chosen proxy, you can either create your own healthcare proxy or visit a lawyer. We typically recommend working with an estate attorney, as their services will guarantee that your healthcare proxy is legally binding in your state and that you’re creating other essential documents (like a living will or POA) at the same time. 

When your healthcare proxy is finalized, Pillar Life can help you keep your documents organized and ensure they’re always accessible to your family members and loved ones. 

How much does a medical proxy cost?

Depending on how you choose to create your healthcare proxy, you can expect to spend anywhere from about $150 (for a DIY version of the healthcare proxy), to $1,000 or more, for a full suite of advance directive documents, including a living will, created with the help of an attorney. 

Protect your family and your wishes healthcare proxy

Making healthcare decisions on someone else’s behalf can be an agonizing experience. Fortunately, you can spare your family and loved ones some of that emotional strife by creating a healthcare proxy now - while you’re healthy. While you may never need to call upon the document, knowing it’s there in case of a “what if” situation helps create peace of mind for you and your loved ones.

Ready to create your healthcare proxy or other advance directive documents? Pillar Life is here to help you store, protect, and secure your most important documents. Learn more about Pillar or try Pillar for free now.

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