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Futility and the Care of Surgical Patients: Ethical Dilemmas

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Futility has been a contentious topic in medicine for several decades. Surgery in critical or end-of-life situations often raises difficult questions about futility. In this article, we discuss the definition of futility, methods for resolving futility disputes, and some ways to reframe the futility debate to a more fruitful discussion about the goals of care, better communication between surgeon and patient/surrogate, and palliative surgical care. Many definitions of futile therapy have been discussed. The most controversial of these is “qualitative futility” which describes a situation in which the treatment provided is likely to result in an unacceptable quality of life. This is an area of continued controversy because it has been impossible to identify universally held beliefs about acceptable quality of life. Many authors have described methods for resolving futility disputes, including community standards and legalistic multi-step due process protocols. Others, however, have abandoned the concept of futility altogether as an unhelpful term. Reframing the issue of futility as one of inadequate physician–patient communication, these authors have advocated for methods of improving communication and strengthening the patient–physician relationship. Finally, we discuss the utilization of consultants who may be of use in resolving futility disputes: ethics committees, palliative care specialists, pastoral care teams, and dedicated patient advocates. Involving these specialists in a futility conflict can help improve communication and provide invaluable assistance in arriving at the appropriate treatment decision.

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This work was supported in part by a grant from the National Cancer Institute (P30CA072720).

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Correspondence to Eric A. Singer.

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S. B. Grant and P. K. Modi have contributed equally towards this study.

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Grant, S.B., Modi, P.K. & Singer, E.A. Futility and the Care of Surgical Patients: Ethical Dilemmas. World J Surg 38, 1631–1637 (2014).

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