About Health Care Directives

Every adult can benefit from making health care directives—that is, documents in which you express your health care wishes and appoint a person to make decisions for you if, someday, you can no longer speak for yourself. If you're looking for a living will or durable power of attorney for health care, you're in the right place. They are both types of health care directives.

If you're older or in ill health, you surely understand why these docu­ments are important. But if you're younger—perhaps using this program to help prepare health care documents for a loved one—consider making documents for yourself now, even if you don't think it's necessary.

You Have the Legal Right to Direct Your Own Care

Your right to direct your own health care is well established. But that wasn't always the case. Just a few decades ago, heart-wrenching legal battles were fought to win permission to create a document stating that life-prolonging treatments should be terminated—or continued—at the end of life.

Landmark cases involving Karen Ann Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan—two young women who became brain-damaged and unable to communicate their wishes—opened the way to laws supporting health care documents.

In the Cruzan case, decided in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court established the constitutional right to end life-sustaining treatment if a patient's wishes to do so are clear. The next year, the federal Patient Self-Determination Act (PSDA) took effect, requiring any facility that participates in Medicare or Medicaid to ask patients whether they have an advance directive and to inform them about their health care decision-making rights.

Now, every state has a law that permits you to express your health care wishes and requires medical personnel to follow those wishes—or transfer you to the care of someone else who will do so.