Futility in neurosurgery: a patient-centered approach

Neurosurgery. 2013 Dec;73(6):917-22. doi: 10.1227/NEU.0000000000000014.


The concept of futility has been a source of discussion for many years. Even though it is tempting to propose that an action or clinical intervention should be deemed futile if it does not achieve the goals of that action, further clarification is needed in terms of the nature of the likely outcomes of an intervention and the probabilities of various outcomes being achieved. The outcome, in an age of balance between autonomy and necessity, should, at a minimum, be acceptable to the person on whom the intervention is to be performed. This is especially the case when considering outcome following decompressive craniectomy for severe traumatic brain injury, in which certain outcomes are likely to be severely impaired states that the patient would consider unacceptable. In this article, we use some key ethical concepts such as substantial benefit and the risk of unbearable badness to explore the concept of futility in severe traumatic brain injury and, by linking that to recent advances in neurosurgical science, propose a pragmatic patient-centered approach to deal with the concept of futility.

MeSH terms

  • Brain Injuries / surgery*
  • Decompressive Craniectomy
  • Humans
  • Medical Futility / ethics*
  • Neurosurgery / ethics*
  • Patient-Centered Care / ethics*