As a lawyer by training and working as a non-lawyer in a clinical setting, I hear legal words of art tossed around without knowledge of their meaning. In many cases, wrong terminology is the least of the healthcare team’s concerns and it is not an issue. However, there are times when correct understanding of the legal significance of a phrase resolves an ethical dilemma all on its own.
The phrase I have been hearing lately in the clinical setting is “ward of the state.” This phrase has significance for the health care team because it determines who has authority to make decisions for a patient who lacks capacity, such as patients with development disabilities (“DD”). The legal meaning of “ward of the state” means that the patient has a public legal guardian (as opposed to a family member or friend as guardian). For those who do not understand its meaning, those using the term are usually referring to someone who is receiving health care services from a state agency or living in a group home. The key misunderstanding is that receiving state services does not automatically deem one a “ward of the state” in the eyes of the law. A patient could be receiving services from Office for People with Developmental Disabilities without having a legal guardian. According to the New York Health Care Decisions Act, a 17-A guardian is the one who makes decisions for anyone with an intellectual or developmental disability, including health care decisions. This is a legal process. It is common for a facility with patients with disabilities to begin a guardianship process for their residents who lack capacity as part of their admission process, but this is not always the case. This difference in understanding becomes an issue when the medical team is looking to make a major medical decision, such withdrawal of care, and no one understands with whom to discuss the plan of care. One may go down a rabbit hole of investigation to find who has guardianship only to learn that there was no public guardian at all.
Another commonly misunderstood legal word is “proxy.” Technically, proxy refers to the health care proxy form, a legal document, not the person. However, even lawyers sometimes call the appointed person “proxy,” even though the correct term would be “health care agent.” Proxy and surrogate have different legal meanings; proxy refers to a legal form and surrogate refers to someone who has health care decision making authority based on statute. If someone has health care decision making authority based on a proxy document, it means there was legal paperwork completed and it is evidence of the patient’s preferences. Both a health care agent and surrogate have the same authority; it just comes from a different source. Further, it is harder to remove a named health care agent’s authority than a surrogate’s authority. In order to remove a health care agent, one has to go through a legal proceeding, while removal of a surrogate would be an internal hospital process based on a series of factors, such as who is acting in the patient’s best interests. The difference matters in a clinical setting when there are multiple family members and the medical team is trying to determine who should be the decision maker. A health care agent would trump a surrogate, despite the familial relation.
Language has meaning. This is not a new revelation. Language has different meanings in different contexts. A word in a court room means something very different from the same word in the clinical setting. However, there are times when the legal meaning of a word has importance in the clinical setting as well. Understanding the legal meaning helps clarify conflict and in these two examples, who is the appropriate decision maker. It is important for health care providers to be precise in their language, as using such terms more carefully may result in better resolution of perceived ethical dilemmas.