Medical futility: its meaning and ethical implications

Ann Intern Med. 1990 Jun 15;112(12):949-54. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-112-12-949.


The notion of medical futility has quantitative and qualitative roots that offer a practical approach to its definition and application. Applying these traditions to contemporary medical practice, we propose that when physicians conclude (either through personal experience, experiences shared with colleagues, or consideration of published empiric data) that in the last 100 cases a medical treatment has been useless, they should regard that treatment as futile. If a treatment merely preserves permanent unconsciousness or cannot end dependence on intensive medical care, the treatment should be considered futile. Unlike decision analysis, which defines the expected gain from a treatment by the joint product of probability of success and utility of outcome, our definition of futility treats probability and utility as independent thresholds. Futility should be distinguished from such concepts as theoretical impossibility, such expressions as "uncommon" or "rare," and emotional terms like "hopelessness." In judging futility, physicians must distinguish between an effect, which is limited to some part of the patient's body, and a benefit, which appreciably improves the person as a whole. Treatment that fails to provide the latter, whether or not it achieves the former, is "futile". Although exceptions and cautions should be borne in mind, we submit that physicians can judge a treatment to be futile and are entitled to withhold a procedure on this basis. In these cases, physicians should act in concert with other health care professionals, but need not obtain consent from patients or family members.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Critical Care*
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Euthanasia, Passive*
  • Family
  • Humans
  • Moral Obligations
  • Paternalism
  • Patient Participation
  • Patient Selection
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Philosophy, Medical*
  • Physician's Role
  • Probability
  • Risk Assessment*
  • Withholding Treatment