Advance Care Planning

OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: June 28, 2018

The state of advance care planning in the United States

  • A recent study found that 36.7% of adults had an advanced directive of some kind; 29% living wills, 33% health care proxy (Yadav, et.al. (2017))
  • 56% have not communicated their end-of-life wishes.
  • 80% of people say that if seriously ill, they would want to talk to their doctor about end-of-life care.
  • 7% report having had an end-of-life conversation with their doctor.
  • 82% of people say it's important to put their wishes in writing. (Source: Survey of Californians by the California HealthCare Foundation (2012))
  • Medicare allows health care providers to bill, annually, for discussions with patients about advance care planning.

What does advance care planning mean?

  • Advanced care planning is a process of planning for your future medical care.
  • It focuses on a clarification of each patient's personal values and goals at the end of life.
  • Advanced care planning typically includes a living will and a health care proxy/surrogate or power of attorney.
  • The documents you complete outline your wishes if someone else must make medical decisions on your behalf.

Why is advance care planning important?

It is important that our wishes for medical care are known and executed that way in which we would like them to be. Would we want care that would prolong our life, but make us dependent on machines to help us breathe or medications to keep our hearts beating?

Who would we want to make medication decisions for us in the case we were unable to make them for ourselves? Perhaps even more important it, who wouldn't we want to be involved in making decisions for us if we couldn't make these for ourselves?

What documents do I need to complete?

  • It is especially important that people put their wishes in writing by completing an advance directive. This involves two components:
    • Living will - an instruction for your medical care. This includes wishes for heroic measures and directives on interventions to pursue or not pursue in specific healthcare scenarios.
    • Healthcare proxy - selection of your durable power of attorney or healthcare surrogate who would make medical decisions on your behalf if/when you are no longer able (incapacitated).
  • Remember, an advance directive is for healthcare decisions ONLY. You can read more about financial power of attorney here.
  • Check your state's requirements on rules for notarizing and obtaining witness signatures on the document.
  • State specific documents are available through Caring Connections and Overplays.
  • Some states utilize Physician or Medical Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST/MOLST). These forms are specifically for out of hospital/clinic care (in home or while being transported via ambulance). 
    What topics should I discuss with my family and healthcare team?
  • End-of-life physical care needs - Express any preferences to die at home, hospital, nursing home and to be with family, paid caregivers, or alone.
  • Funeral plans and wishes such as burial, cremation, organ donation, or body donation to science.
  • Any other personal feelings of unfinished business or need for life-closure.
  • You may also need to address legal and financial matters, which could include preparing wills, assigning co-signers to bank accounts, guardianship arrangements, etc.

Are there tools that can help me initiate these discussions with my family and healthcare team?

  • These conversations can be difficult. People may think it feels morbid or is bad luck to talk about end-of-life, but having these discussions when you are physically and mentally able will take the stress of making decisions off your family when they are needed.
  • It can be difficult to find the right words, but is important to have open communication with your family and healthcare team so that everyone understands your wishes.
  • Utilize your oncology social worker or nurse navigator to assist you in initiating these challenging conversations and accessing necessary paperwork like advance directives.
  • These resources are useful in helping you think about your wishes for your care:

When does an advanced directive come into play?

  • When your healthcare provider believes you have a terminal condition, are in a state of permanent unconsciousness or persistent vegetative state that is irreversible and without a chance of meaningful recovery.
  • If you were unable to make decisions because of cognitive or mental decline, your healthcare surrogate or proxy would make your healthcare decisions. Your living will can provide guidance for this person regarding your wishes.

For more information about advance care planning

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