Choosing a medical proxy

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: November 24th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

The widely publicized Terry Schiavo case underscored the importance of designating a medical proxy at a young age, before unexpected illness strikes. But many patients aren’t offered the opportunity to do so until they reach old age or are faced with a life-threatening condition.

That may soon change. A Northwestern University study estimates that ninety percent of patients will gladly appoint a medical proxy during a routine office visit, if invited to do so. But most patients wait for their physician to broach the topic. As a result, only a quarter of the patients surveyed had been asked to designate someone to make medical decisions on their behalf before enrolling in the study.

Appointing a medical surrogate increases the chances that your wishes will be respected in the event of sudden illness. Unless a patient states otherwise, decision-making authority is often given to a patient’s spouse. But a third of the patients surveyed chose someone other than their spouse to make medical decisions. Those patients frequently chose female family members… such as sisters, mothers or daughters… over male relatives, such as brothers and sons. In such cases, designating an official surrogate may help avert potential conflicts between family members who each believe they have your best interests in mind.

The researchers say physicians should encourage patients to share their wishes and personal values with family members before a medical crisis. Choosing a medical proxy early in life can help prevent future reincarnations of the Terry Schiavo case.