Abstract

The debate over futility is driven, in part, by physicians' desire to recover some measure of decision-making authority from their patients. The standard approach begins by noting that certain interventions are futile for certain patients and then asserts that doctors have no obligation to provide futile treatment. The concept of futility is a complex one, and many commentators find it useful to distinguish ‘physiological futility’ from ‘qualitative futility’. The assertion that physicians can decide to withhold physiologically futile treatment generates little controversy. The claim that they can withhold qualitatively futile treatment runs afoul of standard objections to medical paternalism. There is reason to believe that the conceptual distinction will not be maintained in clinical practice. This paper contends that the scientific data which would support a physician's unilateral decision to withhold physiologically futile treatment also provide support for an institutional policy restricting access to the treatment. The data the doctor uses to take decision-making power out of the hands of the patient can be used by the administrator to take power out of the hands of the doctor. While this loss of power is unproblematic, there is reason to believe that the ambiguity in the term ‘futility’ will allow a much greater loss of physicians' power.

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