Beyond futility to an ethic of care

Am J Med. 1994 Feb;96(2):110-4. doi: 10.1016/0002-9343(94)90130-9.


The medical futility debate is usually framed as a conflict between physician and patient (or surrogate) over the right to decide whether a particular life-saving treatment is futile and should not be attempted. Arguments on behalf of physician-determined futility emphasize the limits of physicians' obligations; arguments on behalf of patient-determined futility reflect concerns over the potential erosion of recent gains in patient autonomy against medical paternalism. Underlying the arguments of those pressing for "value-free" definitions of medical futility and unlimited obligations of physicians to patients may be fears of covert rationing and patient abandonment. Often overlooked in this debate, both at the bedside and in public commentary, is the ethical duty of the physician to redirect efforts from life-saving treatments toward the conscientious pursuit of treatments that maximize comfort and dignity for the patient and the grieving family. To supplement the limited terms of the futility debate with an ethic of care, physicians should lead in advocating greater awareness of the ethics of care in doctor-nurse interactions, institutional facilities, insurance policies, and public education.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ethical Theory
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Humans
  • Moral Obligations
  • Paternalism
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Prognosis*
  • Resource Allocation
  • Social Values*
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Withholding Treatment