Health Break | Published April 11, 2011

What is an advance directive? Do I need one?

If you were incapacitated, would your family members know what type of healthcare intervention you would want? Would your loved ones know whom you have designated to speak for you if you were not able to speak for yourself? These issues are at the core of the Federal Patient Self-Determination Act of 1990, when Congress affirmed the right of every citizen to set forth his or her future healthcare wishes in writing with an "advanced directive." Yet, only about 25% of all Americans have an advance directive. Many people do not know that advance directive forms are free and can be filled out without the assistance of an attorney.
There are other misconceptions about advance directives. Some may think that a living will and a healthcare power of attorney are the same thing, or that an advance directive is only for limiting care. Others may put off creating an advance directive believing those forms are only for people in poor health or the elderly. In reality, every American, regardless of age or health status, should have an advance directive. No one knows when he or she will be in a catastrophic accident and be incapacitated.
So let's set the record straight. An advance directive is comprised of two free documents. One is the Healthcare Power of Attorney, which names the person you want to make decisions for you if you cannot make decisions for yourself. The second is a living will, a legal document that a person uses to make known his or her wishes regarding life prolonging medical treatments. (It can also be referred to as a health care directive, or a physician's directive.) A living will is not the same as a living trust, which is a mechanism for holding and distributing a person's assets to avoid probate. A living will informs your health care providers and your family about your exact wishes regarding medical treatment in the event you are not able to speak for yourself. Instructions in your living will take effect only when you cannot understand, make and communicate your treatment choices and you either have an end-stage medical condition or are permanently unconscious.
Once you have the Advanced Directive documents, put them in a convenient place and advise key family members and your physician of their whereabouts. Copies of the a Living Will and a Healthcare Power of Attorney are available at:
In observance of National Healthcare Decisions Day, Mount Nittany Medical Center will present a free program titled, "Make Your Healthcare Wishes Known," on April 15 from 11:30 pm – 2:00 pm and 2:30 pm- 4:30 pm in Conference Room 1 at Mount Nittany Medical Center, State College, Pa. The program is designed to educate the public about the importance of advance directives and provide assistance with creating them. For information contact Samantha Rosefsky at 814.231.7000 or Samantha Rosefsky is a Patient Representative at Mount Nittany Medical Center.