Opinion, WVPA Sharing

Op-Ed: West Virginians should document end-of-life wishes

The good news is that West Virginians lead the nation in at least one positive health care statistic. Our residents are more likely than those in most other states to have filled out an advance directive such as a living will or medical power of attorney.

Dr. Alvin H. Moss
Dr. Alvin H. Moss
The bad news is that even as one of the best in the nation, only about half of Mountain State residents have taken the time to ensure they will receive the level and kind of treatment they prefer as they near the end of life.Now is the perfect time to change that.The West Virginia Center for End-of-Life Care, which receives funding from the state Department of Health and Human Resources, will coordinate the efforts of numerous other groups around the state in celebrating National Healthcare Decisions Day on April 16. While there’s never a bad time to tell your health care providers and loved ones what your treatment preferences are, this is an ideal opportunity to do so while it’s at the top of your mind.Most people who have been informed about its benefits want to complete a living will that indicates what care they do – or do not – want when they are dying and unable to communicate for themselves. Likewise, it is really a good idea to complete a medical power of attorney to specify who should make decisions for you when you are unable to make them for yourself.Depending on your personal condition, you and your physician may also want to consider a “Do Not Resuscitate” card that indicates you are not to receive CPR if your heart stops or if you stop breathing.The West Virginia system also includes the option for seriously ill patients of completing a POST form (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) that converts your wishes into medical orders that are honored throughout all health care settings. Research done in West Virginia shows that a person’s medical treatment wishes are most likely to be respected if they are recorded on a POST form.All four of these forms can be entered into the online WV e-Directive Registry, which will allow medical personnel anywhere in the state to know how to treat you according to your wishes in a medical crisis. Once you have completed any of these forms, fax a copy to the West Virginia Center for End-of-Life Care at 304-293-7442 so that it can be entered into the registry, which is part of the West Virginia Health Information Network.

Advance directives make it much easier for families to decide what treatments their loved ones should receive at the end of life. In the combined living will and medical power of attorney form, the most commonly used advance directive in West Virginia, individuals can name someone they trust to make decisions for them and provide directions for the types of treatment they do and do not want at the end of life.

It’s vital that people choose for themselves how they want to spend their final days. Although there has been much talk nationally about “death panels,” filling out the appropriate forms will ensure that West Virginians retain control over their own lives and medical treatment.

In this country we have overmedicalized death. We all will die. We can die well – with our wishes respected and our pain controlled – or poorly, receiving treatments that we did not want and in extreme pain surrounded by strangers.

Fortunately, West Virginians can decide for themselves how they want to spend their final weeks, days and hours, and they have their choice of advance directives and a statewide system to ensure that those directives are respected when the time comes.

Pledge to yourself – and just as importantly your family – that by the time National Healthcare Decisions Day ends, you will have taken steps to make sure your wishes are clear to your family or the person you choose to make decisions for you if you can’t make them for yourself.

To find out more about National Healthcare Decisions Day events in your local community, visit the West Virginia Center for End-of-Life Care’s website www.wvendoflife.org or call 877-209-8086. The center also provides free information and tools (including free advance directives forms) to help West Virginians to put their wishes in writing so that they will be followed.

Dr. Alvin H. Moss is director of the West Virginia Center for End-of-Life Care, which is based in Morgantown but works statewide.

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