Frequently Asked Patient Safety QuestionsOctober 21, 2009
Do I have the right to make health care decisions?
Yes. Adult patients in Connecticut have the right to determine what, if any, medical treatment they will receive. If you can understand the nature and consequences of the health care decisions that you are being asked to make, you may agree to treatment that may help you or you may refuse treatment even if the treatment might keep you alive longer.
Do I have the right to information needed to make a health care decision?
Yes. Physicians have the responsibility to provide patients with information that can help them to make a decision. Your physician will explain:
- What treatments may help you;
- How each treatment may affect you, that is, how it can help you and what, if any, serious problems or side effects the treatment is likely to cause;
- What may happen if you decide not to receive treatment.
Your physician may also recommend what, if any, treatment is medically appropriate, but the final decision is yours to make. All of this information is provided so you can exercise your right to decide your treatment wisely.
What is an advance directive?
An advance directive is a legal document through which you may provide your directions or express your preferences concerning your medical care and/or to appoint someone to act on your behalf. Physicians and others use them when you are unable to make or communicate your decisions about your medical treatment.
Advance directives are prepared before any condition or circumstance occurs that causes you to be unable to actively make a decision about your medical care.
In Connecticut, there are two types of advance directives:
- the living will or health care instructions
- the appointment of a health care representative
Must I have an advance directive?
No. You do not have to make a living will or other type of advance directive to receive medical care or to be admitted to a hospital, nursing home or other health care facility. No person can be denied medical care or admission based on whether they have signed a living will or other type of advance directive.
If someone refuses to provide you medical care or admit you unless you sign a living will or other type of advance directive, contact the Department of Public Health in Hartford, Connecticut at 860-509-7400.
What is a living will?
A living will is a document that states your wishes regarding any kind of health care you may receive. Should you be in a terminal condition or permanently unconscious, the living will can also tell your physician whether you want “life support systems” to keep you alive or whether you do not want to receive such treatment, even if the result is your death. A living will goes into effect only when you are unable to make or communicate your decisions about your medical care.
What does terminal condition and permanently unconscious mean?
A patient is in a “terminal condition” when the physician finds that the patient has a condition which is (1) incurable or irreversible and (2) will result in death within a relatively short time if life support systems are not provided. “Permanently unconscious” means a permanent coma or persistent vegetative state where the patient is not aware of himself or his surroundings and is unresponsive.
What is a life support system?
A “life support system” is a form of treatment that only delays the time of your death or maintains you in a state of permanent unconsciousness. Life support systems may include among other things:
- devices such as respirators and dialysis;
- cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR);
- food and fluids supplied by artificial means, such as feeding tubes and intravenous fluids.
It does not include
- normal means of eating and drinking, such as eating with assistance of another person or through a straw;
- medications that help manage pain;
Will I receive medication for pain if I have a living will?
Yes. A living will does not affect the requirement that your doctor provide you with pain medication or care designed solely to maintain your physical comfort (for example, care designed to maintain your circulation or the health of your skin and muscles). This type of care must be provided whenever appropriate.
What is a health care representative?
A health care representative is a person whom you authorize in writing to make any and all health care decisions on your behalf including the decision whether to withhold or withdraw life support systems. A health care representative does not act unless you are unable to make or communicate your decisions about your medical care. The health care representative will make decisions on your behalf based on your wishes, as stated in a living will or as otherwise known to your health care representative. In the event your wishes are not clear or a situation arises that you did not anticipate, your health care representative will make a decision in your best interests, based upon what is known of your wishes.
What kind of treatment decisions can be made by a health care representative?
A health care representative can make any and all health care decisions for you, including the decision to accept or refuse any treatment, service or procedure used to diagnose or treat any physical or mental condition. The health care representative can also make the decision to provide, withhold or withdraw life support systems. The health care representative cannot make decisions for certain specific treatments which by law have special requirements.
How will my health care representative know when to get involved in making decisions for me?
At any time after you appoint your health care representative, your health care representative can ask your attending physician to provide written notice if your physician finds that you are unable to make or communicate your decisions about your medical care. Even if your health care representative does not do so, your health care providers will usually seek out your health care representative once they determine that you are unable to make or communicate your decisions about your medical care.
What is a conservator?
A “conservator of the person” is someone appointed by the Probate Court when the Court finds that a person is incapable of caring for himself/herself including the inability to make decisions about his or her medical care. A person who is conserved by a court is known as a “ward”.
The conservator of the person is responsible for making sure that the ward’s health and safety needs are taken care of and generally also has the power to give consent for the ward’s medical care, treatment and services.
You can name in advance the person you want the Court to appoint as your conservator if you become incapable of making your own decisions. If you have a conservator, he or she will be consulted in all medical care decisions. If you have a living will, however, the conservator’s consent is not required to carry out your wishes as expressed in the living will.
If a conservator is later appointed for you, he or she must follow your health care instructions, either as expressed in a living will, or as otherwise known to your conservator made while you were able to make and communicate health care decisions. Further, a conservator cannot revoke your advance directives without a probate court order.
How are decisions made if I have both a health care representative and a conservator?
Generally, the decision of a health care representative will be followed if the conservator and health care representative disagree unless the probate court orders otherwise. This rule may not apply when the conservator has been appointed in some particular situations.
What advance directives should I have?
If you want to be sure that your wishes about your medical care are known if you cannot express them yourself, you should have a living will and you should also appoint a health care representative. Each of these advance directives has a special importance.
If you are unable to make or communicate your preferences as to your medical care, your physician will likely look first to your living will as the source of your wishes. Your health care representative can make decisions on your behalf according to what is stated in your living will. In situations that are not addressed by your living will, your health care representative can make a decision in your best interests consistent with what is known of your wishes.
Who can I name as my health care representative or as my conservator?
If you wish to you can name the same person to be your health care representative and to be your conservator. The following persons cannot be named your health care representative:
- your physician;
- if you are a patient at a hospital or nursing home or if you have applied for admission, the operators, administrators, and employees of the facility;
- an administrator or employee of a government agency responsible for paying for your medical care.
Other than these restrictions, you can name anyone you feel is appropriate to serve as your health care representative. Of course, you should speak to the person whom you intend to name and be sure of his or her willingness to serve and to act on your wishes.
Do I need a lawyer to create an advance directive?
No. You do not need a lawyer to create an advance directive. You can use the forms in this booklet.
Do I need a notary to create an advance directive?
Except for optional forms, the forms do not require the use of a notary. An additional optional form called a witnesses’ affidavit that is included among the forms in this booklet requires a notary public or a lawyer to verify the signature of the witnesses. This form is discussed in more detail in the next section. If you have legal questions, you should consult a lawyer.
Do I have to sign my advance directives in front of witnesses?
Yes. You must sign the document in the presence of two witnesses in order for the advance directives to be valid. The witnesses then sign the form.
For the living will and the appointment of health care representative, an optional form is provided in this booklet. It is called a witnesses’ affidavit. It is the witnesses’ sworn statement that they saw you sign the living will or appointment form, that you were of sound mind and it was your free choice to do so. In the event that there is a dispute regarding your living will or appointment of a health care representative, the witnesses’ affidavits support its validity. This affidavit requires the use of an attorney or notary public. No other form requires the use of a notary or an attorney.
Who can witness my signature on an advance directive?
In general, Connecticut law does not state who may or may not be a witness to your advance directive. An important exception is that the person who you appoint to be your health care representative or as your conservator cannot be a witness to your signature of the appointment form.
Once I complete an advance directive what should I do?
You should tell the following persons that you have completed an advance directive and give them copies of the directives you have made:
- your physician;
- the person(s) you have named as a health care representative;
- anyone who will make the existence of your advance directives known if you cannot do so yourself, such as family members, close friends, your clergy or lawyer.
You should also bring copies with you when you are admitted to a hospital, nursing home or other health care facility. The copies will be made part of your medical record.
After I complete an advance directive, can I revoke it?
Yes. You can revoke your living will or appointment of a health care representative at any time. A living will can be revoked either orally or in writing. If you sign a new living will, it may revoke any prior living will you made.
However, to revoke your appointment of a health care representative, you must do so in writing that is observed and signed by two witnesses in order for the revocation to be valid.
Remember whenever you revoke an advance directive to tell your physician and others who have copies of your advance directive.
To revoke your designation of a conservator, you can do so either in writing or by making a new designation which states that earlier designations are revoked. It is advisable to put any revocation in writing. However, once a court has appointed a conservator, it cannot be revoked without a court order.
If I already have a living will or appointed someone to make health care decisions, do I need a new one?
No. Connecticut’s living will statutes were revised effective October 1, 2006. If your living will and other advance directives, such as a health care agent or power of attorney for health care, were completed prior to this date, they are still valid, although they are slightly different than the new advance directives.
On October 1, 2006, the health care representative replaced the appointment of a health care agent and power of attorney for health care. The health care representative is, in effect, a combination of these two types of advance directives. The new living will makes clear that the living will can be used to provide your instructions regarding any type of health care, not just life support systems.
If I don’t have an advance directive, how will my wishes be considered if I am unable to speak for myself?
If you are unable to make and communicate your decision concerning your medical care and you do not have a living will, your physician can consult with other persons to determine what your wishes are regarding the withholding or withdrawal of life support systems. If you have discussed your wishes with your physician, he or she will, of course, know your stated wishes. Your physician may also ask your health care representative, your next of kin or close relatives and your conservator, if one has been appointed, what you have told them about your wishes regarding withholding or withdrawing life support systems. If your wishes are unknown, then decisions will be made based upon what is in your best interests.
It is not recommended that you rely on oral instructions to these individuals to make your wishes known. If there is no living will, such instructions are required to be specific and may need to be proven in a court. You are better advised to complete a living will or appoint a health care representative if you want to be sure that your wishes will be understood and known in the event you are unable to state them yourself.
What is a document of anatomical gift?
It is a document in which you make a gift of all or any part of your body to take effect upon death. Any adult may make an anatomical gift in writing, including through a will, a donor card or by a statement imprinted or attached to a motor vehicle operator’s license. An anatomical gift may be made for the purpose of transplants, therapy, research, medical or dental education, or the advancement of medical or dental science. If you do not limit the gift’s purpose to one or some of these uses, the gift can be used for any of these purposes. You may select who receives the gift – a hospital, physician, college, or an organ procurement group. You may also specify that the gift be used for transplant or therapy for a particular person. If no one is named to receive the gift, any hospital may do so.
Can I revoke an anatomical gift?
Yes. An anatomical gift may be revoked or changed only by (1) a signed statement; (2) an oral statement in the presence of two witnesses; (3) or by informing your physician if you are in a terminal condition. An anatomical gift may not be revoked after the donor’s death.
What if I have more questions?
If you have additional questions about advance directives, discuss them with your physician and family. A social worker, patient representative or chaplain may be able to assist you, but they cannot provide legal advice. If you have legal questions, you should speak with a lawyer.