Medical Futility: A Contemporary Review


Ellen Coonan


      As medical technology has advanced, the question of medical futility has become a topic of intense debate both within the medical community and within society as a whole. However, a unanimous definition thereof is yet to be decided—some commentators are sceptical as to whether an agreement will ever be reached—and this continues to lead to difficulties, tension, and even legal action when a treating physician disagrees with a patient and/or a patient’s family regarding care and treatment options. Although living in a pluralistic society presents one of the major reasons as to why, despite 30 years of intense discussion, no consensus has been made; the issue of medical futility will always be complex as it is, by nature, multifaceted, and numerous elements—including possible risks, evidence of the probability of benefit, the wishes of the patient (and family), professional standards, and cost—interact. Nevertheless, the global medical community has seen the development of two distinctly different approaches to medical futility: one in which the autonomy of patients is of paramount importance in the decision whether or not to pursue a treatment; and one in which beneficence and primum non nocere—first do no harm—are almost entirely the clinician’s prerogative, and whereby he/she has a duty to refuse any treatment for which the potential risks outweigh the potential benefits for the patient. Recently, however, there has been a rejection of this dichotomous view of medical futility and the apparent “power struggle” between physician and patient, and a positive movement towards a more collaborative decision-making process that highlights the necessity of communication, aiming to result in the obtainment of the best possible outcome for each patient as an individual.



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