Communication is Key: Talk to Your Doctor About Your End-Of-Life Wishes

Part of creating an estate plan is talking to your spouse, your family—and yes, your attorney—about your end-of-life wishes. A living will or healthcare directive is an essential part of any estate plan. This is the document in which you nominate the person or people who will make healthcare decisions for you when you are unable. It is also in this document that you specify what treatment you would (or would not) like to have at the end of your life. It is in this document that many people specify their do not resuscitate (DNR) orders; and once they’ve created and signed this document they think they’re all done.

Not quite.

Studies have shown that even with perfectly executed healthcare directives many patients receive treatment they specifically did not want; this is because their wishes are unclear or have not been communicated to medical providers. Some states have found a way to prevent this miscommunication… with a program called Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment, or POLST. “The program involves an innovative medical form that is signed by a doctor, allowing patients to specify what kind of care they want at the end of life, such as feeding tubes and other medical interventions.”

The key here is that the medical form is signed by the patient’s doctor. This requires patients to include their primary care physician in their decisions regarding end-of-life care—or at the very least notify their physician of these wishes—with excellent results. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that “patients with the Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment forms had much less unwanted hospitalization and medical interventions.”

This is wonderful news if you’re in a state like California or Oregon, which already has the POLST program in place. But it doesn’t mean you’re out of luck if you happen to reside in a non-POLST state. Even without the official POLST program, the key to having your end-of-life wishes respected is communication; communication with your doctor, with your family, and with the nursing or caregiving staff most likely to be attending you in an emergency situation.

If you are concerned about having your wishes followed, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor and/or nursing staff about your living will or healthcare directive. Even have them read and sign off on it if necessary. After all, a healthcare directive is a wonderful tool, but it doesn’t do much good gathering dust in your filing cabinet. Make sure your family and medical staff are aware of your end-of-life wishes.