Medical Futility

“Medical futility” refers to interventions that are unlikely to produce any significant benefit for the patient. A treatment that produces a physiological effect on a patient’s body does not necessarily confer any benefit that the patient can appreciate. 

The goal of medicine is to help the sick, and physicians are under no obligation to offer treatments that do not benefit their patients. Futile interventions are ill advised because they often increase a patient’s pain and discomfort in the final days and weeks of life, and because they can expend finite medical resources. 

Futility refers to the benefit of a particular intervention for a particular patient. With futility, the central question is not, “How much does this treatment cost?” or “Who else might benefit from it?” but instead, “Does the intervention have any reasonable prospect of helping this patient?” 

Although the ethical requirement to respect patient autonomy entitles a patient to choose from among medically acceptable treatment options (or to reject all options), it does not entitle patients to receive whatever treatments they ask for. Instead, the obligations of physicians are limited to offering treatments that are consistent with professional standards of care. 

The term “futile” has both a technical meaning and a moral weight. The ethical authority to render futility judgments rests with the medical profession as a whole, not with individual physicians at the bedside. Thus, futility determinations in specific cases should conform with more general professional standards of care. 

See Questions and Answers: Medical Futility