“Advance directive” is a general term that refers to your oral and written instructions about your future medical care, in the event that you become unable to speak for yourself. Each state regulates the use of advance directives differently. There are two types of advance directives: a living will and a medical power of attorney.
A living will is a type of advance directive in which you put in writing your wishes about medical treatment should you be unable to communicate at the end of life. Your state law may define when the living will goes into effect, and may limit the treatments to which the living will applies. Your right to accept or refuse treatment is protected by constitutional and common law.
A medical power of attorney is a document that enables you to appoint someone you trust to make decisions about your medical care if you cannot make those decisions yourself. This type of advance directive may also be called a “health care proxy” or “appointment of a health care agent.” The person you appoint may be called your health care agent, surrogate, attorney-in-fact, or proxy. In many states, the person you appoint through a medical power of attorney is authorized to speak for you any time you are unable to make your own medical decisions, not only at the end of life.
Advance directives give you a voice in decisions about your medical care when you are unconscious or too ill to communicate. As long as you are able to express your own decisions, your advance directives will not be used and you can accept or refuse any medical treatment. But if you become seriously ill, you may lose the ability to participate in decisions about your own treatment.
Both federal and state laws govern the use of advance directives. The federal law, the Patient Self-determination Act, requires health care facilities that receive Medicaid and Medicare funds to inform patients of their rights to execute advance directives. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws recognizing the use of advance directives.