The following is an interview between Angela Howard and Dr. Nancy Van Vessem, M.D., the chief medical officer at Capital Health Plan:
ANGELA: What is National Healthcare Decision Day?
DR. VAN VESSEM: April 16th has been designated as National Healthcare Decision Day. It is a collaborative effort of national, state and community organizations with a goal that all adults who can make decisions have the opportunity to get materials and advice regarding advanced directives.
ANGELA: What is an advanced directive?
DR. VAN VESSEM: It is a legal document which details a person's health care wishes in the event that the person becomes unable to speak for him or herself. Advance directives may indicate a person's health care power of attorney – the person who makes decisions on behalf of an incapacitated loved one. This is a very good first step but make sure that the individual is able to take on this responsibility. If you choose someone who can’t live without you, and ask them to be the one who withholds life sustaining treatment, your wishes may not be followed. A "living will" documents the types of medical procedures someone wants, or does not want, at the end of life. These end-of-life treatment preferences could include: the use of artificial nutrition and hydration, the use of ventilators or other life support resources, and preferences regarding resuscitation or CPR. The 5 Wishes document is very useful and easy to understand. You can get that through the organization, Aging with Dignity.
ANGELA: Why is this so important?
DR. VAN VESSEM: We believe that it is the individual’s right to make decisions that are based on their own values and beliefs. It also is a very kind act in regards to family and friends because an advance directive can alleviate the burden of making end-of-life decisions for a loved one. 42% of Americans have had a friend or relative suffer from a terminal illness or coma in the last 5 years. And for a majority of these, the issue of withholding life sustaining treatment came up.
ANGELA: How many adults have an advanced directive?
DR. VAN VESSEM: A study in 2006 showed that about 30 % of American adults have done an advanced directive. The overwhelming majority of the public supports laws that give patients the right to decide whether they want to be kept alive through medical treatment. The goal is to get the conversation started while people are able to communicate their wishes. Once those decisions have been made, it is important that your physician and all family members who might be involved know your wishes and a copy of your advanced directive is available.