How to Talk to Your Parent’s Doctor

Some of you have asked how you can speak with your parent’s physician or go to the doctor’s office with them.  This all depends on the age and mental capacity of your parents.  If your parents are young and/or mentally able (competent), they make those decisions for themselves.  However, this is the point at which you need to talk to them about future issues.

First I would approach them about whether they have a will and documents to appoint a durable power of attorney and a health care surrogate to step in when they are unable to act.  For my parents, it was the need for a will that brought us to see the lawyer.

A family member had implored me to get my parents to have a will drawn up.  He knew that like 70% of retirees, my dad had chosen to have his retirement in his name only.  This raised the amount of monthly income but meant that when he passed away mom would not get anything from his pension.  That is, it would end with his death.  At my retirement seminar we were told that 70% of retirees choose that option and often supplement it with extra term insurance though it was not an ideal option.

Dad had retired early and needed as much as they could get in monthly income.  My family member suggested that mom had no protection for when dad passed away and my parents should discuss the situation with an elder lawyer who might have suggestions on how to deal with this.

My brother and I accompanied mom and dad to the lawyer at their request.  The lawyer then said that mom and dad also needed to have a durable power of attorney (POA) and a health care surrogate (also called a Health Care Power of Attorney (POA)).  At this point mom and dad were in their 80’s and had no objection to the planning or to signing these documents.

The health care surrogate has been the most used document to date though mom and dad have both had theirs replaced (updated) to make me the primary surrogate in the years since the original document was made.  At first, my brother was named as he lived with them and would be closer in an emergency.

Over the years, I have been the one to accompany mom to her medical appointments and to telephone insurance and doctors on her behalf.  Therefore we first changed her documents to appoint me as the primary POA and health care POA.  Later, when dad had some illness, we changed his as well.  Basically, my brother didn’t want the responsibility and work involved in the day-to-day financial and medical affairs of my parents.

Gradually I began to call my mother’s doctor after her appointments to help her clarify what her diagnosis was and what she should be doing.  She knew she was confused and needed help and she told her doctor that I would be calling.  Later when I was with her in the south, I accompanied her to her appointments whenever possible.  She came to depend on me for this.

Later when dad had an emergency and had to go by ambulance to the hospital, I was the one who rode in the ambulance and stayed with him in the ER.  He was already in early Alzheimer’s and there was no question that he needed family help in answering questions, etc.

Neither mom nor dad ever objected to having me talk to their physicians either in their presence or over the telephone.  It gave them some confidence to have me help them with this stressful task.

This would be a different matter if they were younger and felt totally competent to handle their own affairs.  US Privacy laws would prevent their physician from telling me anything without their permission.  Some people think HIPAA is the reason for this.  However, HIPAA is only one of many privacy laws that protect patients’ personal information.  Both state laws modeled on the “Uniform Health Care Act” and earlier federal laws also protected patient’s privacy.  The “Uniform Health Care Act” is a state law which many states adopted to guarantee patients access to their own medical information and protect their privacy.  This was before HIPAA took effect and many states have amended their state laws to make them more consistent with HIPAA.

In addition, there are Federal and state laws that give extra protection to mental health and substance abuse patients.  These laws were designed to encourage such patients to obtain medical help without fear that their diagnosis will be used against them by employers or family members (say in a divorce case).

So, to get back to the original question – How Do you get your parent’s doctor to communicate with you?  The answer is that your parents have to give permission for their doctor to give you information unless they are incompetent and you are their guardian or unless you already have a health care proxy signed before they show signs of dementia.

Alternatively, there is no law to prevent you from giving information to their physicians.  If you believe they are doing things or taking medication that would be detrimental to their health, you can write a letter and send it to their physician.  However, you may not be able to keep the physician from sharing this information with your parent.  It is up to the discretion of the physician.  Also, the physician can’t tell you any more in response to the letter than he could before.  That is, your parent still must approve the release of their information or have signed a health care power of attorney giving you that permission.

I do have experience with this as it was one of the areas I worked with before I retired.  That was awhile ago so I don’t necessarily have the most up-to-date information on all Federal and State laws.  I do know my rights though as my parents’ representative and I have fought to get copies of their medical records, etc.  Legally, if you are the appointed health care representative, the physician and the records office must treat you as if you were the person you represent.  You then have the same rights they do to their medical information.

I suggest you discuss this with your parent.  In a crisis, you need to know where they are (if in the emergency room, etc.) and their condition.  Often hospitals and doctors will not tell you anything if your parent has not already listed you as a person who should have access.  Tell your parent(s) that you want to be able to help them in an emergency and ask that they list you and that they prepare a health care surrogate form.  You don’t even need a lawyer as the forms can often be found with a search on the Internet.  The format is set by state law so you need to be sure to have the right form.  And, from personal experience, it does help to have a lawyer prepare it and defend your right to information when hospitals or others refuse to honor your signed form.

About letstalkaboutfamily

I am a retired and was the primary caregiver for both my parents before they passed. I have children and grandchildren. This blog is an attempt to connect with other caregivers and share ideas and experiences. I hope you will let me know what worked for you if you had an experience similar to mine. The main issues I am going to talk about are elder care, death and dying, assisted living, family relationships and hoarders and hoarding. Other topics will come up as I address the issues and my relationship with other family members.
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13 Responses to How to Talk to Your Parent’s Doctor

  1. Eva says:

    Reblogged this on where'smyT-backandotherstories and commented:
    How To Talk To Your Parents’ Doctor from the blog of Let’s Talk About Family. (But first, you have to be with your parent patient when you see the doctor and don’t leave them with just the ‘nanny’

  2. Teresa Cleveland Wendel says:

    Thanks for the good info which I will soon discuss with my folks. Some of this I wasn’t aware of.

    • You’re welcome, Teresa, I’m glad I could help. I went with mom to her doctors over many years, and as I mentioned, it was also my job to understand and enforce the privacy laws at my workplace. It is good to talk about it with your family well before you need to. That will give you time to get the necessary papers in place.

  3. What about when you can’t get your parents to doctor, or any other qualified, licensed health care or wellness professional? (Because they are paranoid.)

    • That is a difficult situation. Perhaps you can ask your own doctor for ideas. If you have any medical friends perhaps they could come to visit your when your parents are there. I think a doctor or psychologist or social worker might have better ideas than I have. I was lucky mom always had great faith in doctors and in my help because I worked in a medical center even though I was not a doctor or nurse.

  4. Pingback: Helping Parents with Medicare Payment Errors | Let's Talk About Family

  5. Pingback: Who is my Father’s Doctor? How Can I Get Information about his Condition? | Let's Talk About Family

  6. William says:

    Thanks for the info. Question: My father has advanced dementia and is on his 4th wife. The 4th wife has power of attorney and will not give us any details of the medical condition of my father. ( He was recently admitted to the hospital for pneumonia and then to a skilled nursing rehab facility) The rest of the family is concerned for him, If I ask, can the doctor fill me in directly, as his son, to the details of his condition? Or can the wife instruct the doctor to not do this ( this is what she would choose if it were up to her). Thanks for the assistance.

    • William,

      I am not a lawyer, and the answer might depend on which state you are in. But generally a hospital can give out general information about a patient’s condition without specific permission. That is they can say condition is good, critical, etc. but I would suggest you contact the physician directly and tell him your situation and see if he will give you more information. Generally the physician is interested in the well being of the patient and may share information if the patient or his representative have not forbidden it (usually this would be in writing).

      Beyond that I suggest you visit your dad regularly and see how he is doing and perhaps ask the staff about how he seems today as compared to recently, etc. So much dependson having a good relationship with the staff.

      Other than that, you might need a lawyer if the wife has closed all the communication doors. I would suspect a judge wouold rule that you have a right to know, even if you don’t have decision making rights. But it is costly to go the legal route, and there are no guarantees.

      Good luck.

  7. I am an Elder Lawyer and I am so happy to see people realizing they need to go to Elder Attorneys and get these documents so that they can help their parents….good job putting this infor out there! Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  8. Charles Howie says:

    My dad had bowel cancer 5 year ago and ever since then he has been in a lot of pain when going to the toilet,My concern now is losing a lot of weight,he is waiting to go into hospital and the GP has been on the phone to ask for a quick appoitment but nothing seems to be happening is there anything i can do ?

    • Charles, I am not a doctor nor a lawyer. I guess if I was worried about a family member I might try an emergency room in another hospital. But is see you are not in the US, so I have no idea about how medical access would work for your father. I wish you both luck in this.

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