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Types of Health Care Directives

Learn how each of these documents helps you get the medical care you want

By , J.D.
Nolo

Health care directives allow you to inform medical professionals and family members about what kind of care you want when you can't communicate those wishes yourself. This article reviews several types of documents that help you set out your wishes in advance or name someone to speak on your behalf. The exact names for these documents can depend on the state in which you live. (See What Health Care Directives Are Called in Your State.)

Living Will

This document—also known as a health care "declaration" in some states—bears no relation to the conventional will or living trust used to leave property at death, despite its name. It's a document that lets you declare what type of medical treatment you do or do not wish to receive if you are too ill or injured to manage your own care. (Among other things, you can use it to be sure doctors do—or do not—"pull the plug.") The document may have a different name in your state, but you'll recognize it as the place where you write down your specific wishes about different types of medical care.

For more information, see What Do My Living Will and Power of Attorney for Health Care Cover?

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

This document, also known as a medical power of attorney or medical POA, allows you to name a trusted person to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to communicate on your own. The person you name to make these decisions is usually called your agent or attorney-in-fact.

You can give your agent the authority to oversee the wishes you've set out in your health care declaration, as well as the power to make other necessary decisions about health care matters.

Note that a POA for health care is a separate document than a POA for finances, which names a person who can act on your behalf in financial, rather than health, matters.

For more information, see Choosing Your Health Care Agent.

Advance Directives

Some states combine the living will (or declaration) and durable POA for health care into a single form, most often called an "advance health care directive" or "advance directive." In these states, this single document both lays out your wishes and preferences for medical treatment (like a living will) and names a health care agent (like a power of attorney for health care).

To find out if your state combines these documents into one, see the chart in What Health Care Directives Are Called in Your State.

Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Order

If a medical emergency occurs, a DNR order alerts emergency personnel that you do not wish to receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). DNR orders are sometimes made to supplement other health care directives, usually by those who are already critically ill and feel strongly that they do not want to receive life-prolonging treatment when close to death.

If you are in the hospital, you can ask your doctor to add a DNR order to your medical record. If you are not hospitalized, you can make what's called a prehospital DNR order to keep nearby in case paramedics are called to your home or care facility.

Learn more about DNR Orders.

POLST Forms

In almost all states, you have yet another option for setting out your wishes—a Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form (also called a POST, MOLST, or MOST form, among other terms). POLST forms allow you to express your wishes for care in a medical emergency. In this way, they are similar to DNR orders. However, a POLST form covers more more medical decisions than a DNR order. For example, you can use a POLST form to state your wishes about intubation, antibiotic use, and feeding tubes.

Learn more at About Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) Forms, which includes a state chart.

Health Care Directive Terminology

The documents used to state your wishes for health care go by many names. Here's a chart to help you sort through the terminology.

Term Also Called What It Means
Living Will Directive to Physicians, Health Care Declaration, Medical Directive, Health Care Directive A legal document in which you state your wishes about life support and other kinds of medical treatments. The document takes effect if you can't communicate your own health care wishes.
Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Medical Power of Attorney, Power of Attorney for Health Care, Designation of Surrogate, Patient Advocate Designation A legal document in which you give another person permission to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make those decisions yourself.
Advance Health Care Directive Any of the documents discussed above may be called an advance health care directive; the term most often refers to a legal document that includes both a health care declaration and a durable power of attorney for health care. This type of combined form is currently used in more than one-third of the states.
Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) Order DNR Form, DNR Directive, Comfort One A medical order or form, usually signed by a doctor, that documents your wish not to receive CPR or other invasive resuscitation techniques if you stop breathing or your heart stops beating.
Physician Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) Form Provider Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment, Physician orders for Scope of Treatment (POST), Medical Orders for Scope of Treatment (MOST), Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (MOLST), Clinician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (COLST), Transportable Physician Orders for Patient Preferences (TPOPP) A medical order signed by a doctor or other qualified health care professional. A POLST form is used in health care settings to document your instructions for medical care at the end of life. It is not a substitute for an advance health care directive.
Attorney-in-Fact for Finances Agent for Finances The person you name in your durable power of attorney for finances to make financial decisions for you if you cannot make them yourself.

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