National Healthcare Decisions Day Keeps Conversation Alive

By Carolyn B. Lamm, President, _

Did Terri Schiavo die in vain?  Five years after this tragic case that pitted Terri’s family members against one another over the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, most Americans still don’t have legal documents that appoint someone to make medical decisions on their behalf.  Experts estimate 70-80 percent of the population is still without advance directives.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine reinforced the importance of completing advance directives, and showed more than one in four elderly patients needed someone else to make end-of-life decisions on their behalf.  In this study, patients who already had an advance directive in place received the care they requested 83 percent of the time, and 97 percent of incapacitated patients with an advance directive requesting comfort (non-aggressive) care had their wishes honore

National Healthcare Decisions Day on April 16 is one of many efforts to encourage advance care planning and provides the resources to do it (www.nhdd.org).

The term “advance directive” describes the legal documents which enable you to plan for and communicate your end-of-life wishes in the event that you are unable to speak for yourself.  The forms and laws surrounding them vary from state to state.  Since each state has its own regulations governing these forms, it is important to complete a legally valid form in your state of residence.  The statutory forms for all 50 states can be found at www.caringinfo.org, a National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization service.  Although not required, it is highly recommended that individuals consult their physician and/or attorney to make sure the forms are completed correctly.  Once an advance directive has been completed, it should be reviewed and updated as a person’s circumstances or health status changes.

Even more important than any written document, however, are the conversations that precede and accompany them: with family members and with caregivers, physicians, lawyers, and other health care providers. Experts agree “talking about it” goes a long way toward increasing family members’ understanding of a patient’s wishes.

The _ has a recently published guide for the seriously ill, numerous other health decisions resources, and the suggestion to use the “5 Ds” to trigger family discussions: every Decade, in the event of a Death of a loved one, a Divorce, a Diagnosis or a Decline.  Also there are healthcare providers and others trained to help families work through these conversations.

In its brief three-year history, National Healthcare Decision Day has mobilized participation by more than 80 national organizations, 700 state and local organizations and 34 states.

National Healthcare Decision Day helps focus our efforts on having the difficult— but indispensable—conversations about our healthcare preferences, values and priorities, and the need to appoint a medical power of attorney.

Struck down at a young age, Terri Schiavo left her family with agonizing decisions to make on her behalf in a highly publicized and polarizing drama carried out on the national stage.  The anniversary of her death reminds us all that “taking care of business” must be a top priority.  Use National Healthcare Decision Day to lead others by your example.  Talk about your preferences with your family, fill out an advance directive and designate a healthcare proxy.

April 14, 2010

headphonesRelated info can be found in the new free podcast “Five Big Myths of Advance Care Planning and How to Stay Anchored in Reality” presented by The Health Law Section, Senior Lawyers Division and the ABA Commission on Law and Aging.
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