What will you decide on National Healthcare Decisions Day?

Posted March 24, 2017 10:31 a.m. EDT

This story was written for our sponsor, Transitions LifeCare.

In a letter to French physicist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, Ben Franklin wrote in 1779, "Nothing is certain except death and taxes."

Since 2008, the day after Tax Day typically has been declared National Healthcare Decisions Day. It's a time when Americans are encouraged to reflect on healthcare choices they would prefer should they be stricken with a serious illness or condition that could lead to death, or make them unable to express their wishes themselves.

"Advance directives" or "advance care plans" are terms used for written instructions a person creates to convey their wishes regarding medical treatment.

In a report published by the Aspen Institute Health Strategy Group, the first of "Five Big Ideas to Improve Care at the End of Life" is to "build the development and updates of an advance care plan into the fabric of life."

The report asserts that developing advance directives "should be as natural as thinking about one’s financial future."

The directives often contain signed, witnessed and legally binding documents, including:

  • Living Will - instructs an attending physician to withhold or withdraw medical interventions if you have a terminal condition and are unable to speak for yourself.
  • Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare - assigns an agent to make healthcare decisions for you if you’re not able.
"It always seems too early, until it's too late."

This is the theme of 2017's National Healthcare Decisions Day.

Healthy people often don't want to think about their demise and believe there's plenty of time to create their advance care plan, however many are left unprepared when a health crisis strikes.

"Writing down your advance directives is not only important for your benefit, it's a tremendous gift to your family and friends," said Dr. Laura Patel, chief medical officer of Transitions LifeCare.

It may be helpful to address the subject with a physician. In fact, Medicare pays for physicians to have advance care planning appointments with their patients.

A physician can help you think through your goals of care and how they translate into medical treatments you may want -- or not want.

"These discussions and decisions can be difficult, but they are even harder when a physician has to ask your family member to make decisions if you are too ill to participate," Patel pointed out. "Your family is left with the burden of trying to figure out what type of care and interventions you want, often worrying they are making the wrong decisions. Families who can look to an advance directive and previous discussions for guidance often feel a sense of relief that they are following their loved one’s wishes."

How to document your healthcare decisions into advance directives.
  1. Have a conversation with your loved ones. This step can be the most difficult for many people. According to The Conversation Project, 90 percent say talking with loved ones about end-of-life care is important, but only 27 percent have done so. If you need help addressing this sensitive topic with your family, The Conversation Project offers an easy-to-use starter kit.
  2. Write down your directives. It's important to put your healthcare wishes in writing. Tools for guiding you through this process are available online at the National Healthcare Decisions Day website:
  3. Share and store your written documents. After you've written your advance directives, review them with at least one family member and let them know where you keep the plan filed -- whether printed or electronic documents. You also may want to give copies to your attorney and primary care physician.

This story was written for our sponsor, Transitions LifeCare.