The living will is the oldest form of advance directive. It was first proposed by an Illinois attorney, Luis Kutner, in a speech to the Euthanasia Society of America in 1967 and published in a law journal in 1969. Kutner drew from existing estate law, by which an individual can control property affairs after death (i.e., when no longer available to speak for himself or herself) and devised a way for an individual to express their health care desires when no longer able to express current healthcare wishes. Because this form of "will" was to be used while an individual was still alive (but no longer able to make decisions) it was dubbed the "living will". In the U.S., The Patient Self-Determination Act (PSDA) went into effect in December 1991, and required healthcare providers (primarily hospitals, nursing homes and home health agencies) to give patients information about their rights to make advance directives under state law.
A living will usually provides specific directives about the course of treatment healthcare providers and caregivers are to follow. In some cases a living will may forbid the use of various kinds of burdensome medical treatment. It may also be used to express wishes about the use or foregoing of food and water, if supplied via tubes or other medical devices. The living will is used only if the individual has become unable to give informed consent or refusal due to incapacity. A living will can be very specific or very general. An example of a statement sometimes found in a living will is: "If I suffer an incurable, irreversible illness, disease, or condition and my attending physician determines that my condition is terminal, I direct that life-sustaining measures that would serve only to prolong my dying be withheld or discontinued."
More specific living wills may include information regarding an individual's desire for such services such as analgesia (pain relief), antibiotics, hydration, feeding, and the use of ventilators or cardiopulmonary resuscitation. However, studies have also shown that adults are more likely to complete these documents if they are written in everyday language and less focused on technical treatments.
However, by the late 1980s, public advocacy groups became aware that many people remained unaware of advance directives and even fewer actually completed them. In part, this was seen as a failure of health care providers and medical organizations to promote and support the use of these documents. The public's response was to press for further legislative support. The most recent result was the Patient Self-Determination Act of 1990, which attempted to address this awareness problem by requiring health care institutions to better promote and support the use of advance directives.
Living wills proved to be very popular, and by 2007, 41% of Americans had completed a living will. In response to public needs, state legislatures soon passed laws in support of living wills in virtually every state in the union.
However, as living wills began to be better recognized, key deficits were soon discovered. Most living wills tended to be limited in scope and often failed to fully address presenting problems and needs. Further, many individuals wrote out their wishes in ways that might conflict with quality medical practice. Ultimately, it was determined that a living will alone might be insufficient to address many important health care decisions. This led to the development of what some have called "second generation" advance directives – the "health care proxy appointment" or "medical power of attorney."
Living wills also reflect a moment in time, and may therefore need regular updating to ensure that the correct course of action can be chosen.
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