Updated: Oct 6, 2022
If you go to the trouble to create a Healthcare Power of Attorney, is there a chance that the document will be overlooked or even ignored by time-pressed healthcare professionals?
It’s a question worth asking.
First, let’s review the basics. A Healthcare Power of Attorney is a legal form that allows one person (the principal) to empower another (the healthcare agent) with the ability to make decisions regarding healthcare and medical treatment if the principal is unable to make those decisions.
While the Healthcare Power of Attorney form accessible on the State of Tennessee’s website may cover just about every possible situation, it is overly complex and asks families to speculate in ways that may or may not be helpful in an actual medical situation. “This ten-page form that covers every possible scenario is a great idea in theory but the reality is that the details in those lengthy documents are often overlooked by doctors,” says Certified Elder Law Attorney Barbara McGinnis, who spent 20 years working as a nurse in a variety of long-term care settings before joining Takacs McGinnis Elder Care Law, where she is now attorney and partner. “When a long health care power of attorney document is in a patient’s file, doctors end up scanning through to find what they need, which most often is the name of the healthcare agent. Ironically, the longer the document is, the greater the changes that critical information will be missed, especially in situations where decisions need to be made quickly.”
To compound the situation, some advisors recommend “combination” documents where a Durable Power of Attorney for general use and the Healthcare Power of Attorney are combined in a single document. “Though this approach sounds practical, it may lead to trouble,” Barbara notes. “It means that healthcare professionals have to sift through even more paperwork in a patient’s file in order to find the information they need.”
The better solution, says Barbara, involves consolidating all the most important information onto a single page that allows health care providers to view the principal’s most important information at a glance. A one-page health care power of attorney is much more likely to be read by time-pressed healthcare workers. The one-page form used by Takacs McGinnis is concise in the authorities it gives. It names the health care agent and an alternate, outlines the decisions that the health care agent is authorized to make on behalf of the principal in a handful of bullet-points, and includes signature lines for the principal and Notary Public—all on a single 8 ½ x 11 page.
The form used in the Five Wishes project is another good example of a simplified Healthcare Power of Attorney made even easier with an online interface. The Five Wishes Project is a private non-profit organization that has helped millions of people worldwide plan in advance of a serious illness. Free for use by the public, the Five Wishes form is the most widely used advance directive in America. It is written in normal language, has plenty of room for customization, is honored in the State of Tennessee and ends with naming your healthcare agent. Access the Five Wishes document at www.agingwithdignity.org.
For Barbara, it comes down to safeguarding human dignity. “I’ve seen many client cases end in tragedy because a loved one didn’t have a health care power of attorney, or because the one they had was too complicated to be useful to health care personnel,” she said. “And if the health care power of attorney document isn’t being read, why have it at all? Simple documents are almost always better.”