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Oregon recently launched a state registry for patients who sign a form known as POLST (Physician Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment).  This transferable order set allows patients to give specific instructions on the treatments they would or would not want in certain situations.  For example, a patient may opt for or against resuscitation for cardiac arrest, for or against IV antibiotics, or whether or not to place a feeding tube in different scenarios.  The POLST orders go beyond most states' DNR (do not resuscitate) orders, which only apply in the event of cardiac arrest.  POLST allows a patients to direct their care even when they have become to ill to express their wishes.

One of the biggest problems with advance directives is that emergency crews or hospital staff cannot locate the documents in a crisis, the time when the expressed wishes are most crucial.  Unless medical personnel have a verbal or written directive from the patient, we are obligated to perform certain procedures like intubation and mechanical ventilation, which many terminally ill patients do not want.  POLST tries to ensure that wishes are honored, but even in states where POLST has been implemented, relying on a paper form has its risks.  This program in Oregon would allow medical personnel with a password to instantly access the POLST record electronically, even if the paper document cannot be found.  Many times I have encountered situations when a patient was in a crisis, unable to speak, and we could not locate the advance directive or power of attorney.  Too often the patient had something done that went against his or her expressed wishes, simply because those expressions were not available when needed.

I understand concerns that people may have about an electronic record of private and personally held wishes that can be used to direct medical care.  I believe that this system would give more control to patients, not less.  If you take the time to document your wishes, shouldn't they be available to health care personnel in a time of crisis?  The registry is purely voluntary; Oregon residents are not required to participate. There is no coersion to choose one option over another; patients may direct care however they see fit, even to request all available treatments or procedures be given under any circumstance. While I do not agree with Oregon's policy on legalized physician-assisted suicide, I believe that a voluntary electronic registry of patient wishes is a helpful addition to the health care system, and I hope that more states adopt such a program.

As I have said before, the best way to ensure that your wishes are honored is to name a Power of Attorney for Health Care.  Read more here.

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I have blogged before about the importance of sharing your end-of-life wishes with someone you trust.  Thanksgiving is the perfect time to have that conversation as you gather with family.  The fine folks at Engage with Grace have put together a slide of 5 questions that will make this process easier.

If you have the gizzards to bring up these questions at the Thanksgiving dinner table, you deserve the Myles Standish Award for Bravery.  Even so, I find that once the ice is broken, these conversations can be quite cathartic, and you and your family will feel like you accomplished something important at Thanksgiving besides overloading on poultry and dozing off into a tryptophan-induced haze.  So, after you engage with gravy, Engage with Grace this holiday.  You can thank me later.

...would love to hear your comments on how it goes...

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Today's article by Barbara Brotman in the Chicago Tribune gives an excellent representation of what advance care planning conversations might look like at the end-of-life. Of course, advance care planning can occur at any stage of illness, and does not always have to address things like Do-Not-Resuscitate orders or refusing other invasive measures. It could simply cover what you value when it comes to your health care, and who you want for your Power of Attorney.

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House Calls Radio debuts this Sunday evening Sept 6th at 10pm on AM 560 WIND. In addition to the latest health headlines, we will discuss the topic of advance care planning. My guest is Dr. Martha Twaddle, director of the Midwest Hospice and Palliative Care Center.

Show #1 Action Steps
1) Choose the person you would trust to make health care decisions on your behalf if you become unable to express your health care wishes.
2) Ask that person if they would be willing to act as your health care power of attorney.
3) Download the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care form. (Here's the Illinois form if you live in my home state)
4) Complete the form and have a witness sign it. You may also have your chosen agent sign the form but it is not required. No notary or attorney is required. You may choose successor agents in the event your primary agent is unable to fulfill their responsibility.
5) Make copies of the form.
6) Keep two for yourself, give one to your power of attorney, one to your physician, one to your successor agents (if applicable), and one to your lawyer (if applicable).
7) Have a conversation with your power of attorney about the things that are important to you when it comes to your health care. If you need help with this, make an appointment with your physician specifically to discuss advance care planning and ask for at least a 30 minute appointment. Bring your power of attorney with you. In Chicago, you can find a trained facilitator to help you with this process at Someone To Trust.

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Have you heard the radio advertisements for legal firms that will send you a FREE living will? Have you heard them promise that if you call now, you can save even more money because they will include a FREE Health Care Power of Attorney? Sounds great, doesn't it? What they don't mention is that these documents are already available for free, and you don't even need a lawyer in order to complete them.

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