Health and Well-being Understanding advance directives

Don’t wait until you get sick

When Dr. Paul Hutchison, MD, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Loyola University Medical Center, sees patients in the intensive care unit, many are in such poor condition that they can no longer advocate for themselves or make their own medical decisions.

He’s seen families disagree about what treatment a patient would have wanted, or wrack themselves with anxiety about what kind of care to approve for their loved one. Other patients come in without any family or friends who can help narrow down complicated choices.

This unnecessary stress can be avoided with an advance directive. Advance directives are written statements—like living wills or medical power of attorney forms—that guide the treatment plan for incapacitated patients. The statement can be as simple as appointing a decision maker in the event of critical illness or as detailed as specifying what kind of life saving measures (if any) a person might prefer.

“It’s important for people to know that having a simple conversation, or at least filling out a power of attorney form and identifying a decision maker, can go a long way in making sure your own wishes are respected and that you get the kind of care you want even when you can’t advocate for yourself,” said Hutchison, who is also an assistant professor at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine and runs Loyola’s advance directive planning clinic. “And you can take the burden off your family, who may or may not know exactly the kinds of care you want to receive.”

Here, Hutchison discusses the basics of advance directives.

How can people get an advance directive?

Ask your primary care doctor during your annual exam. You can also print and fill out advance directive forms on the Illinois Department of Public Health website. If you’re in the Chicagoland area, make an appointment at Loyola’s advance directive planning clinic, where you can be walked through the process.

Who needs one?

Anyone can add an advance directive to his or her electronic medical record. People preparing for major surgery or suffering from a terminal illness are also encouraged to sign.

Why should people get an advance directive?

“The number one reason is to make sure that your values and your priorities are reflected in the medical decisions that are being made for you,” Hutchison said. “The other reason is to relieve the burden on your family. If people can anticipate their wishes in serious or critical situations, their family doesn’t have to try to guess or agree on what they think the patient might have wanted.”

The most important thing he told us? Don’t wait until you get sick to have a conversation with your family and health care provider. “Conversations like this are best had when somebody is healthy,” Hutchison said. “While people don’t necessarily like talking about death and dying and what could happen, it’s important for people to know they do have some control.”

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