Living Wills

Living wills developed several years ago in the wake of news reports in different parts of the country dealing with terminally ill people. The facts in each story were similar: a terminally person who was too sick to communicate with doctors being kept alive in a vegetative state through mechanical means of life support. Residents of Chicago and other parts of the country were disturbed to learn that the law did not allow a doctor to follow the wishes of a patient’s family to end life support without proof of what the patient would want under those circumstances.

What is a Living Will?

A living will is one of several documents known as advance directives. Advance directives such as health care powers of attorney and health care proxies name another person to make health care decisions if the patient is unable to communicate with doctors. Living wills, on the other hand, are just written statements for the doctors and other medical providers of the patient’s wishes concerning the type and extent of medical care administered to them.

Formalities

Every state has laws regulating the use and form of advance directives. All states authorize the use of a living will. Some states allow patients to use a written statement to inform medical professionals of their wishes under all circumstances. Other states, such as Illinois, limit use of a statement of a patient’s wishes to those situations where the person is unable to communicate with doctors, the medical condition is terminal and death is imminent.

Illinois is similar to most states in not requiring a specific form for a living will. Any written statement signed by the patient and witnessed by two people other than the patient’s medical providers is acceptable.

Contents

A written statement by a patient expressing end-of-life medical decisions usually contains instructions regarding artificial resuscitation and respiration, artificial hydration, and tube feeding. The types of treatment addressed in the statement of patient’s wishes can be much broader in those states that do not limit it to terminal medical conditions.

Legal Effect

A doctor is not required to follow the wishes of a patient, whether communicated in a living will or in person, if those wishes are medically unsound or violate the doctor’s ethics. This would also be the case if the medical facility has rules and procedures that would be violated if the wishes of the patient were followed. In such situations, arrangements must be made to transfer the patient to the care of another hospital or medical professional.

Alternatives

By restricting the use of living wills to end-of-life decisions, Illinois is encouraging people to use other advance directives, such as a health care power of attorney, to appoint a person to make health care decisions when the patient is unable to do so.

Avoiding misunderstandings about medical treatment is a matter of communicating those decisions to one’s family and medical providers well in advance of the time when illness or injury makes communication impossible.

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