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Futile treatment: the ethicist’s perspective

We need to pay attention to the reasons why treatment is judged to be futile

When doctors are confronted with making treatment decisions in the context of a terminally ill patient, the way forward is often difficult and confused. Bringing an ethics perspective to bear on the problem can help to resolve what the essential issues are, in turn enabling a clearer path to appropriate decisions by the people who ought to be making those decisions. In many cases where further treatment of a patient may be thought to be futile, such as John’s case, described by Koczwara,1 the central ethical question is whether treatment is medically inappropriate or futile, and whether, as a consequence, it may be withdrawn or withheld against the wishes of his family.

Is treatment inappropriate or futile?

There are many different terms that are used to describe treatment that medical professionals feel should not be provided, even if the patient or family request it.2 Sometimes, as in John’s case, it is called “futile”;1 at other times it is referred to as…