You have the right to talk to your loved one’s doctors about their health, but you will be limited in what information you can get and what decisions you can make unless they have legally named you as their proxy or agent using a health care proxy document (also referred to as medical power of attorney, durable power of attorney for health, or appointment of a healthcare agent).

If your loved one has named you as a health care proxy or agent, you will have the right to access almost any information and records that they could. Your legal right goes into effect when your loved one cannot communicate their wishes because of temporary or permanent illness or injury.

Naming a health care proxy is a critical step that both you and your loved one should take to make sure that someone you trust will always be in charge of health care decisions.

In some states, if you become unable to speak for yourself (for example, if you are in a coma), decisions about your health may fall to doctors or hospital administrators rather than to someone who knows you well. And even in states where your family can make decisions, if they disagree on the treatment, they may have to battle it out in court.

If you do not have legal authorization, what you can find out will depend on the doctor. You do not have an automatic right to information about your loved one’s health. Under the HIPAA Privacy Rule (named for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that created it) a doctor can disclose medical information to you as a caregiver- whether you are a relative or friend- if the patient is present and does not object, and it is directly relevant to the patient’s care.

If the patient is unable to agree or object (for example, if they are unconscious) the doctor can choose to disclose information if they feel it is in the patient’s best interest. But the law does not require doctors to share medical information.