In the 1990’s, the Florida case of Terry Schiavo captivated the nation. Schiavo was twenty-six years old when she suffered a cardiac arrest and entered a persistent vegetative state. Eventually, a contentious legal battle erupted between her husband, who wanted to have her feeding tube removed, and her parents, who opposed this measure. Litigation continued for seven years, at tremendous emotional and financial cost, until a court determined that Schiavo would not have wanted to continue with life-prolonging measures and ordered the feeding tube to be removed. Schiavo passed away soon thereafter.

Legal battles such as this one, and the heartache associated with them, can be avoided by a document called a Health Care Power of Attorney. In a Health Care Power of Attorney, a person known as the “Principal” elects to have another person, known as the “Agent,” make health care decisions on his or her behalf. The Power of Attorney becomes effective when the Principal is incapacitated and no longer able to make his or her own decisions. The documents require the certification of at least one physician that the Principal has become incapacitated. A Health Care Power of Attorney can be revoked at any time that the Principal can communicate an intent to revoke.

A Health Care Power of Attorney allows the Agent to consent to, prohibit, or withdraw medical treatment. The document can allow the Agent to make end-of-life decisions if an individual wishes to express his or her personal decision about withholding or withdrawing extraordinary medical treatment when approaching the end of life. As a part of the Healthcare Power of Attorney or as a separate document, an Advance Directive ( also referred to as a “Medical Directive” or “Healthcare Directive”) protects the rights of a patient to refuse or to request medical treatment, thereby enabling the healthcare providers to honor the wishes of their patient.

A federal law, known as HIP AA, protects the confidentiality of medical records. A separate HIPAA authorization is also important, because it permits everyone listed on the authorization, and not just the Health Care Agent, to receive information from physicians. Thus, additional family members or friends can be included in the health care conversation when critical or end-of-life decisions are being made.