Futility, autonomy, and informed consent

Health Prog. 1994 Mar;75(2):40-6, 72.


If clinicians deem a treatment medically futile, is it appropriate to mention such a treatment to patients? Do healthcare professionals violate informed consent if they do not offer patients an opportunity to decline futile treatments? The notion of futility involves an assessment of patient best interest--both short-term and long-term therapeutic benefit for a patient and the community in which he or she intends to survive and flourish. Although survival interests may be construed as long term, a treatment that offers survival without any promise of flourishing is not the goal of medicine and is futile. Flourishing requires some cognitive and affective function. The goal of informed consent practices is to ensure that patients accept the benefits of treatment with cognizance of the burdens and risks. Given the impact of illness on the emotional and psychological states of patients and their families and their resultant vulnerability, the omission of futile options from treatment plans is logical and exemplifies the best of paternalistic behavior. The claim that requests for futile treatment must be honored is based on a perverse understanding of patient autonomy. Rational medicine demands that patients' requests be reasonable from a clinical perspective, as well as from a subjective one. The practice of informed consent can be implemented as a balance between these two interests.

MeSH terms

  • Disclosure
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Health Care Rationing / standards*
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent*
  • Moral Obligations
  • Paternalism
  • Patient Participation
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Personhood
  • Physician's Role
  • Prognosis
  • Refusal to Treat*
  • Risk Assessment*
  • Social Responsibility
  • Social Values
  • Treatment Outcome*
  • United States
  • Withholding Treatment*