Navigate Up

Cancer Center - A-Z Index


Print This Page

Health care agents

Alternative names

Durable power of attorney for health care; Health care proxy

What is a health care agent?

A health care agent is someone you choose to make health care decisions for you when you cannot.

A health care agent is also called a health care proxy. This person will act only when you are not able to.

Why would you have a health care agent?

When you are unable to speak for yourself due to an illness, your health care providers may be unclear as to what type of care you would like.

Your family members may be uncertain or disagree about the type of medical care you should receive. Decisions about your medical care may then be made by doctors, hospital administrators, a court-appointed guardian, or judges.

A health care agent, chosen by you, can help your health care providers, family, and friends make decisions during a stressful time.

Your agent's duty is to see that your wishes are followed. If your wishes are not known, your agent should try to decide what you want.

Health care agents are not required. But they are the best way to be sure your wishes for health care treatment are followed.

What can a health care agent do?

If you have an advance directive or living will, your health care agent can make sure your wishes are followed. Your agent's choices come before anyone else's wishes for you.

If you do not have a living will or an advanced directive, your health care agent will be the one to help your health care providers make important choices.

Your health care agent has no control over your money.Your agent also cannot be made to pay your bills.

What a health care agent can and cannot do differs by state. Check your state laws. In most states, health care agents can:

  • Choose or refuse life-sustaining and other medical treatment on your behalf
  • Agree to and then stop treatment if your health does not improve
  • Access and release your medical records
  • Request an autopsy and donate your organs, unless you've stated otherwise in your advance directive

Before you choose a health care agent, you should find out whether your state allows a health care agent to do the following:

  • Refuse or withdraw life-enhancing care
  • Refuse or stop tube feeding or other life-sustaining care -- even if you haven't stated on your advance directive that you do not want these treatments
  • Order sterilization or abortion

Choosing your health care agent

Choose a person who knows your treatment wishes and is willing to carry them out. Be sure to tell your agent what is important to you.

  • You can name a family member, close friend, minister, priest, or rabbi.
  • You should name only one person as your agent.
  • Name one or two other people as backups. You need a backup person in case your first choice can't be reached when needed.

Talk to each person you are thinking of naming as your agent or alternate. Do this before you decide who should carry out your wishes. Your agent should be:

  • An adult, 18 years or older
  • Someone you trust and can talk to about the care you want and what is important to you
  • Someone who supports your treatment choices

In many states, your agent cannot be:

  • Your doctor or health care provider
  • An employee of your doctor or of a hospital, nursing home, or hospice program where you receive care, even if the person is a trusted family member

What you need to do

Think of your beliefs about life-sustaining treatment, which is the use of equipment to prolong your life when your body organs stop working well.

A health care proxy is a legal paper that you fill out. You can get a form online, at your doctor's office, hospital, or senior citizen centers.

  • In the form you will list the name of your health care agent, and any backups.
  • Many states require witness signatures on the form.

A health care proxy is not a living will. A living will is a written statement that can include your health care wishes. Unlike a living will, the health care proxy allows you to name a health care agent to carry out those wishes if you cannot.

You can change your mind about health care choices at any time. If you do change your mind, or if your health changes, talk to your doctor. Be sure to tell your health care agent about any changes in your wishes.


Kapp MB. Ethical and legal issues. In: Duthie EH, Katz PR, Malone ML, eds. Practice of Geriatrics. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 6.

Marchand LR. The plan of care. In: Walsh D, Caraceni AT, Fainsinger R, et al., eds. Palliative Medicine. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2008:chap 120.

Updated: 5/11/2014

Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

©  UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Supplemental content provided by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions. All rights reserved.

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

For UPMC Mercy Patients: As a Catholic hospital, UPMC Mercy abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as determined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, UPMC Mercy neither endorses nor provides medical practices and/or procedures that contradict the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pittsburgh, PA, USA