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|This article's factual accuracy is disputed. (August 2010)|
A health care proxy is an instrument (or document) that allows a patient to appoint an agent to make health care decisions in the event that the primary individual is incapable of executing such decisions. Once the document is drafted, the primary individual continues to be allowed to make health care decisions as long as they are still competent to do so. Depending on the legal jurisdiction, health care proxies may or may not be mandatory. Regardless, they allow a patient's wishes to be followed even when he/she is incapable of communicating them. In many jurisdictions, a health care proxy is closely related to a "springing" health care power of attorney; with many practitioners using these two terms interchangeably.
Some jurisdictions place limitations on the persons who can act as agents. (Some forbid the appointment of treating physicians as the health care proxy.) In any event the agent should be someone close to and trusted by the primary individual.
The agent is empowered when a qualified physician determines that the primary individual is unable to make decisions regarding health care. The agent has the power to remove or sustain feeding tubes from the primary individual if these tubes are the only things that are keeping the primary individual alive. The agent's decision stems from knowledge of the patient's desire in this matter. If the primary individual made his or her wishes clear on the proxy form, then they must be followed despite any possible objections from the agent. Beyond this matter, if there are no limitations on the health care proxy form, the agent can make most other decisions in accordance with what the primary individual would have wanted. An agent will not be legally or financially liable for decisions made on behalf of the primary individual as long as they take into account the primary individual's wishes and beliefs.
Health care proxies are permitted in forty-nine states as well as the District of Columbia. Health care forms may differ in structure from state to state and pre-made forms are not compulsory as long as certain guidelines are met. The common guidelines include:
Health care proxies have become increasingly important today due to conflicts among relatives of the primary individual. The Terri Schiavo case is a famous modern-day example. Doctors tried to treat Schiavo for more than ten years and concluded that she was in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband, who stood to benefit financially from not having to divorce Schiavo and who wanted to re-marry, elected to have her feeding tube removed, but her parents objected. This resulted in a lengthy court battle that raised many political, moral, and medical issues. The whole controversy might have been avoided if Schiavo had assigned either her parents or her husband as her health care proxy. As a result, some commentators have argued that health care proxies should be made mandatory.
In England and Wales, an independent mental health capacity advocate may be appointed under the Mental Capacity Act 2005; the provisions made in the same Act for a lasting power of attorney may also provide a satisfactory basis for providing care via an attorney, who does not require to be professionally qualified. Different arrangements apply elsewhere in the UK.