Do doctors have to follow your health care directive?

A health care directive is a crucial part of an estate plan. In it, you designate your wishes for how you want medical providers to proceed if you become ill or incapacitated and are unable to make those wishes known.

A health care directive allows people, among other things, to designate under what circumstances they want life-prolonging measures to be stopped. A living will may also be used to make these wishes known.

In addition to creating one of these documents, you can give someone a power of attorney to oversee your health care. Sometimes this person is referred to as a health care agent. They will work to ensure that your medical team is abiding by your wishes as you have designated.

In most cases, physicians and other medical professionals are required to abide by these wishes. If a woman is pregnant, however, and following her directive would endanger her life or that of the fetus (particularly in the later stages of pregnancy), doctors may be able to act as they deem appropriate without legal repercussions.

Assuming the person isn't pregnant, what happens if their wishes go against a doctor's or other medical provider's conscience or the policies of the medical facility where they have been taken? If that's the case, they need to inform that person's agent so the patient can be moved to the care of a doctor or facility that will honor those wishes.

The same is true if a medical provider or facility believes that abiding by a patient's wishes would require that they provide an inadequate standard of care. Again, they can't just act in a way that ignores the person's wishes. They must give that person's representative a chance to seek alternative care. Simply ignoring a person's wishes as detailed in their advance directive or other legal documents can expose a medical provider or hospital to liability.

As you are developing your health care directive, it's wise to discuss your wishes with your estate planning attorney and perhaps with your physician. They can advise you if they foresee a problem with providers not wanting to follow your wishes. It's also a good idea to make sure that the person who will be acting as your health care agent is comfortable overseeing your care and enforcing compliance with your wishes.