New Legislation Will Allow Control Of Medical Treatment

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), December 1993

It isn’t the nicest thing to think about, but if accident or illness strikes, you could end up receiving unwanted treatment. 

But in 1994 things will change. The living will or advance directive – a document clearly stating a patient’s wishes about how they want to be treated – will become part of the doctor-patient relationship. 

A trio of acts passed last December – the Advocacy Act, the Substitute Decisions Act and the Consent to Treatment Act – allow, albeit in rather vague language, for Ontarians to set out in advance which medical procedures they would or wouldn’t accept and let’s them name a proxy in case they are incapable of expressing their wishes. 

This vague language – intended to allow patients to customize their wishes – means that writing a living will can prove to be a troubling and confusing experience. 

To aid decision-making, the University of Toronto Centre for Bioethics is offering advice through a “model” living will. 

The centre’s Dr. Peter Singer has geared the “model” to meet Ontario legislation and to offer a guide for anybody who doesn’t know where to begin. 

“We put a lot of detail in the advance directive about states of incompetence people get into, and also the sorts of procedures providers might recommend in those health states.”

Singer sees living wills as an effective tool aiding patients to control their own health care.

“Unless the doctor is a longstanding friend it’s hard to know what patients want. As a practicing doctor, I have run into an incompetent person where their family member has no idea what sort of wishes the person would have wanted. The goal of a living will is to provide the personal care the patient would want.”

But there is a danger. Dr. Singer urges the need for informed and detailed language in a living will. 

“If I have a couple minutes to make a decision I need a document that gives me a lot of confidence that this person wouldn’t want this treatment.”

In an emergency, the doctor might not even know of the living will’s existence. Dr. Singer advises giving a copy to your family doctor, lawyer, or proxy, and keep one with you at all times. When so-called “smart” health cards come along, Dr. Singer would like to see the living will recorded on the magnetic strip along with other health information.