Advance Directives - Glossary of Terms

Health Care Advance Directive

The general term for any document that gives instructions about your health care and/or appoints someone to make medical treatment decisions for you if you can’t make them for yourself. Living Wills and Durable Powers of Attorney for Health Care are both types of Health Care Advance Directives.

Living Will

A document in which you state your wishes about life-sustaining medical treatment if you are terminally ill, permanently unconscious, or in the end-stage of a fatal illness.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care (or Health Care Proxy)

A document in which you appoint someone else to make all medical treatment decisions for you if you can’t make them for yourself. The person you name is called your agent, proxy, representative or surrogate. You can also include instructions for decision-making.

Surrogate decision-making

Surrogate decision-making laws allow an individual or group of individuals (usually family members) to make decisions about medical treatments for a patient who has lost decision-making capacity and didn’t prepare an advance directive. A majority of states have passed statutes that permit surrogate decision making for patients without advance directives.


In relation to end-of-life decision-making, a patient has medical decision making capacity if he or she has the ability to understand the medical problem and the risks and benefits of the available treatment options. The patient’s ability to understand other unrelated concepts is not relevant. The term is frequently used interchangeably with competency but is not the same. Competency is a legal status imposed by the court.

Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) order

A DNR order is a physician’s written order instructing health care providers not to attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in case of cardiac or respiratory arrest. A person with a valid DNR order will not be given CPR under these circumstances. Although the DNR order is written at the request of a person or his or her family, it must be signed by a physician to be valid. A non-hospital DNR order is written for individuals who are at home and don’t want CPR.

Life-sustaining treatment

Treatments (medical procedures) that replace or support an essential bodily function (may also be called life support treatments). Life-sustaining treatments include cardiopulmonary resuscitation, mechanical ventilation, artificial nutrition and hydration and dialysis.


Refers to “endotracheal intubation” – the insertion of a tube through the mouth or nose into the trachea (windpipe) to create and maintain an open airway to assist breathing.


A ventilator, also known as a respirator, is a machine that pushes air into the lungs through a tube placed in the trachea (breathing tube). Ventilators are used when a person cannot breathe on his or her own or cannot breathe effectively enough to provide adequate oxygen to the cells of the body or rid the body of carbon dioxide.

Respiratory arrest

The cessation of breathing – an event in which an individual stops breathing. If breathing is not restored, an individual’s heart eventually will stop beating, resulting in cardiac arrest.

Withholding or withdrawing treatment

Forgoing life-sustaining measures or discontinuing them after they have been used for a certain period of time.