BLOG: 7 things to know when making medical decisions for others

Making medical treatment decisions for others is hard. It typically involves a sudden medical event, with someone you love becoming critically ill and unable to communicate.  

While it’s something we don’t like to dwell on, it’s important that we understand our responsibilities and what’s expected of us if we’re ever called upon to make medical decisions for others. After all, car accidents, strokes and serious illness can happen to anyone. 

You may find yourself in this situation if you’ve been legally appointed as a substitute decision-maker (SDM) or the responsibility may automatically fall to you through family relationship. In fact, if you have a husband, wife or parent, chances are you are a SDM and don’t even know it! 

We've compiled our top 7 tips to help people feel better prepared for the role.  

1. Start talking

All too frequently, people have expectations that loved ones can make decisions on their behalf without discussion.  If someone has appointed you as a SDM without the benefit of clarifying their preferences, be sure to raise it with them.

To kick off the conversation you might ask... “I’m worried that if something happened to  you I wouldn’t know what you would want. Would you accept treatment if it meant you  were unable to talk or recognise people? 

 2. Ask if you’re right for the role 

Before accepting the responsibility of being a SDM, ask yourself if you’re the right person for the role. Few people are aware that it’s ok to say no. 

If you’re not great at making decisions under pressure or feel uneasy about discussing  death or dying, be sure to let your loved one know so that they can choose someone else.

3. Get it in writing

Just like making a will, an advance care directive (ACD) can help create certainty and clarity around a person’s wishes and reduce confusion and family conflict.

Encourage your loved one to write an ACD while they are fit and healthy. Be aware that  ACDs can only be completed by people with decision-making capacity, so if dementia is a  factor, early planning is critical. 

4. Go to medical appointments  

It’s easier to make medical decisions for others if you understand their current health status and how it impacts their quality of life.  If possible accompany the person to medical appointments.  Ask questions about their illness and treatment options and how their illness is likely to progress in future.   

5. Learn your CPRs and DNRs  

While most of us have watched TV medical dramas and know the terminology, few of us have a solid grasp on how these play out in real life.  From CPR and dialysis to tube feeding and artificial breathing, these life-prolonging interventions come with significant burdens that are not always compatible with how people want to live.    

6. Access is everything  

Too often, ACDs cannot be found quickly in an emergency situation.  Encourage your loved one to upload their ACD to My Health Record or ask their health professional to do so. This will ensure the document can be accessed when needed most.  Alternatively ask your loved one for a copy so you can keep it safe and accessible. 

7. Ask for help 

As an SDM, it’s natural to have questions – from completing forms and ethical concerns to understanding the legal aspects.  

We offer  a free national helpline for both the public and health professionals. Call 1300 208 582, Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm AEST.