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Your Right to Make Healthcare Decisions Under the Law

There may be times when you cannot make your wishes known to your doctor or other healthcare providers. If you were taken to a hospital in a coma, you would want the hospital's medical staff to know what your specific wishes are about your medical care.

This page describes what the federal law has to say about your rights to inform your healthcare providers and significant others about the medical care and treatment you want if you are physically or mentally unable to make those decisions yourself.

Because this is an important matter, we urge you to talk to your spouse, family, close friends, personal advisor(s), your doctor and your attorney before deciding whether you want an advance directive.

Download our booklet on Advanced Directives.

Know Your Rights

What are advanced directives?

Advance directives are documents that state your choices about medical treatment or name someone to make decisions about your medical treatment if you are unable to make these decisions or choices yourself. Through advance directives, you can make legally valid decisions about your future medical care.

Most states recognize three types of advance directives:

  1. A living will
  2. An appointment of healthcare agency
  3. An oral directive

Do I have to have an advanced directive?

No. But if questions arise about medical treatment, advance directives may help to clarify these important issues.

Will I receive medical care if I do not have an advance directive?

Yes. There is a chance, however, that you will receive more treatment or procedures than you may want.

If you cannot speak for yourself and you do not have any advance directives, your healthcare provider will look to the following people, in the order listed, for decisions about your care.

1 Your guardian, if a court has appointed one.
2 Your spouse or domestic partner.
3 Your adult children.
4 Your parents.
5 Your adult brothers or sisters.
6 A friend or any other relative who has maintained enough regular contact with you to be familiar with your activities, health, and personal beliefs.

To whom should I talk about advance directives?

Before writing your instructions you should talk to those people closest to you. Discuss the instructions with your family, your doctor, and other appropriate people. These are the people who will be involved with your healthcare if you are unable to make your own decisions.

When do advance directives go into effect?

Directives go into effect when you can no longer make your own healthcare decisions. As long as you are able to give 'informed consent,' your healthcare providers will rely on you and not on your advance directives.

What is informed consent?

Informed consent means that you are able to understand the nature and probable consequences of medical treatments and are able to make evaluations of the risks and possible benefits of those treatments as compared with alternatives.

How will my healthcare providers know I have an advance directive?

Upon admission you will be asked if you have an advance directive. If you answer "yes," you will be asked to present it to the hospital to become part of your medical record while you are a patient. It is your responsibility to communicate the fact that you have these documents to your physician and significant others.

Download these helpful advance directive cards to keep in your wallet or purse. They will tell first responders and family members where to find a copy of your advance directive.

Can I change my mind after I write an advance directive?

Yes. You can cancel or change any advance directive that you have written by destroying the original document. Tell anyone concerned that you have cancelled the advance directive. To change your advance directive write and date a new one. Give copies of your revised document to all the appropriate parties, including your doctor.

Do I need a lawyer to help me make an advance directive?

There is no legal requirement to contact a lawyer, although a lawyer may be helpful to you. You may use this form to execute your advance directives.

What if I have questions regarding completion of my advance directive?

If you have questions or need assistance completing your Advanced Directives, please call 301-790-8271.

Click here for additional resources on Advance Directives.

11116 Medical Campus Road
Hagerstown, MD 21742
TDD: 1-800-735-2258
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