A new law that requires hospitals to talk to patients about living wills and other "advanced directives" about their care is a step in the right direction.
Lawrence Memorial Hospital officials, as well as hospital representatives across the country, now are required to talk to all people admitted for in-patient care about their right to set some limits on what kind of care they find acceptable. That can mean establishing a living will or designating someone to make medical decisions for the patient if he or she becomes too ill to make those decisions alone.
Such matters rarely are dealt with until a crisis arises. People may have casual conversations with friends or family members, but few have really sat down and made their exact wishes concerning their care known. Written documents are far better and easier to enforce than verbal statements made by a patient.
When it comes to prolonging life or allowing "death with dignity" most of us would like to restrict ourselves to intellectual conversations about topics that we wish would never apply to us. But all of us sooner or later probably will be faced with making some life or death decisions either for ourselves or for our loved ones.
In this age when so many extraordinary medical means are available to prolong some semblance of life, it's especially important for people to think ahead to what is acceptable to them, what they consider "life" to be and under what conditions they would wish to prolong or end it.
The new law won't force people to face those issues if they choose not to, but the hospitals at least must raise the questions. That alone, may prompt some patients to set guidelines that would help medical personnel and families make some of the most difficult decisions they will ever face.