What is a healthcare agent or proxy?

A healthcare agent or proxy is appointed by you to oversee your medical care and to make decisions for you regarding treatment if you are unable to do so. This could be because of an emergency or an ongoing illness or condition and does not eliminate the need for your living will. In some states, this person is appointed as part of your advance directive. In others, you will need to complete separate paperwork appointing someone to this role.

Your advance directive is comprehensive, but it still does not cover every possible scenario or circumstance. In some cases, your medical status and treatment needs could change from hour to hour.

A healthcare agent or proxy can step in and make decisions for you, particularly for areas that are not covered by your advance directive. While this person does have the power to decide aspects of your care, he or she is not permitted to go against your advance directive. The agent’s role is to make sure your wishes are followed in situations that you did not anticipate or that are not covered by your advance directive.

Depending on where you live, the healthcare agent could also be called a proxy, attorney-in-fact, surrogate, or patient advocate. In addition to making decisions about your care, this person can usually

  • make decisions that are not covered in your advance directive,
  • go to court on your behalf to enforce your advance directive,
  • hire additional doctors or find new doctors who will work on your treatment plan,
  • access your medical records, and
  • visit you in the hospital or healthcare setting.

Finally, note that some states combine the living will and the durable power of attorney for healthcare into one document called an "advance healthcare directive."

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