How to Set Up an Advance Medical Directive

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If you ended up unconscious and on life support, how long would you want your family to wait and see whether you recovered? If you want to make sure your wishes are respected, consider an advance medical directive.

To find the appropriate paperwork, google “advance medical directive” and your state. While it’s not always necessary to use a particular form, each state has requirements about what makes a directive valid: for example, requirements about witnesses. Your hospital may also be able to help you file the appropriate paperwork.

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An advance medical directive lets you indicate who you wish to make decisions for you if you cannot make them for yourself. It also usually includes information to guide that person: for example, you’ll have to wrestle with some questions like: at what point you would consider your life not worth living? Some of the types of paperwork you may want to fill out—which may be separate documents—include:

  • A living will, to indicate what care you would and would not like at the end of your life
  • Durable power of attorney, designating a certain person to make decisions for you
  • A do-not-resuscitate order, if you do not wish to be resuscitated. This typically needs to be on your medical chart and/or signed by your doctor; you may need a fresh one each time you are admitted to the hospital.

Even though you can fill out the forms ahead of time, the documents are not totally legally binding. For example, in many states, doctors are allowed to ignore your wishes if you are pregnant. Even when things go according to plan, your doctors and family are the ones who get the final say in the end, so the most important thing is having some honest conversations with them so they understand your wishes. This toolkit from the American Bar Association gives questions to think about and ways to initiate those conversations. The National Library of Medicine also has more information on setting up advance directives.