Talking with Your Doctor

In Case of a Serious Illness

Advance Directives

You may have some concerns or wishes about your care if you become seriously ill. If you have questions about what choices you have, ask your doctor. You can record your decisions about your care in documents that are called "advance directives." Advance directives are directions you leave for your doctor, family, and friends about how to care for your health if you become very ill.

Advance directives include a living will and a healthcare proxy. They can also include a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order and a Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST)

  • A living will includes your decisions about medical treatment at the end of life.
  • A healthcare proxy allows you to pick a person or persons who you trust to make health decisions for you if you cannot. A healthcare proxy also states what care you want should you become too sick to talk about it.
  • A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order tells health care providers not to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or other life-support procedures if your heart stops or if you stop breathing.
  • A POLST form provides standing, actionable medical orders concerning end-of-life care. It is created specifically for patients with serious, advanced illness.

(Watch the video to learn more about advance directives. To enlarge the video, click the brackets in the lower right-hand corner. To reduce the video, press the Escape (Esc) button on your keyboard.)

When To Talk with Your Doctor

In general, the best time to talk with your doctor about these issues is when you are still relatively healthy. If you have to stay in the hospital or a nursing home, a nurse or other staff member may ask if you have any advance directives.

One way to begin talking to your doctor about advance directives is to say, "I am worried about what would happen in the hospital if I were very sick and not likely to get better. Can you tell me what generally happens in that case?"

Make sure your doctor and family understand your advance directives and your views about end-of-life care. That will help them make the decisions you would want. Sometimes people change their mind as they get older or after they become ill. Review the choices in your advance care directives from time to time and make changes as needed.

Is the Form Valid in Your State?

Advance care directives are legally valid everywhere in the United States, but laws concerning them vary from state to state. Forms approved for the state you live in are available from many different healthcare organizations and institutions. Make sure that the form you choose is legal in your home state and any other state that you may live in for part of the year.

For more about advance directives, see "Planning for (End-of-Life) Care."