Start the Conversation: National Healthcare Decisions Day 2012

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By Denise Stahl, Executive Director, UPMC Palliative and Supportive Institute

Families are often given the difficult job of making critical decisions about the care of their loved ones who have become seriously ill and are unable to speak for themselves. But all too often, families are making those decisions without knowing exactly what their loved ones would have wanted. That’s why UPMC is joining with healthcare leaders across the country to encourage families to start the conversation about advance care planning for National Healthcare Decisions Day on April 16.

Advance care planning is the process of planning ahead for future medical care should you become unable to make your own decisions due to a life-limiting illness or injury. The best time to think about advance care planning is before you are sick so that you understand what your options are and can communicate them to your loved ones and your doctor.  An advance directive, or living will, is a written document stating your wishes that guides the decisions of the health care team and provides comfort to your family.

Studies have shown more than 70 percent of Americans have thought about end-of-life preferences, yet only about 29 percent have an advance directive. And although about 70 percent of people also say they want to die at home, 70 percent actually die in hospitals.

Why the discrepancies? Experts say the hardest part of advance care planning is starting conversations with your loved ones. It can be uncomfortable to talk about death, especially our own or the death of someone you are close to. But there are several ways to make the conversation easier. How about taking advantage of conversation triggers, such as current events, movies, newspaper articles, funerals, sermons or medical checkups.? Use these events as opportunities to ask your loved one what would be important to them at the end of their life, if they would want to be home or in a hospital, or if they would want symptoms such as pain managed. Also, don’t feel like you have to tackle every issue with one discussion. Make plans to continue the discussion at another time and talk several times about it if need be.

At UPMC, we regularly encourage both our patients and our employees to plan ahead and develop advance directives to guide loved ones with decisions regarding end of life care. There are many resources online that can be used including Five Wishes, an easy-to-use guide to create living wills and durable powers of attorney for medical decisions.  You can visit the group’s website at www.agingwithdignity.com for more information.

Studies have shown families that engage in the advance care planning process have less stress, confusion, and guilt about their decisions.  Don’t wait until it’s too late. Start the conversation today with your loved ones.

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