What does "futility" mean? An empirical study of doctors’ perceptions.

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What does "futility" mean? An empirical study of doctors' perceptions.

Med J Aust. 2016 May 2;204(8):318

Authors: White B, Willmott L, Close E, Shepherd N, Gallois C, Parker MH, Winch S, Graves N, Callaway LK

OBJECTIVE: To investigate how doctors define and use the terms "futility" and "futile treatment" in end-of-life care.
DESIGN, SETTING, PARTICIPANTS: A qualitative study using semi-structured interviews with 96 doctors from a range of specialties which treat adults at the end of life. Doctors were recruited from three large Brisbane teaching hospitals and were interviewed between May and July 2013.
RESULTS: Doctors' conceptions of futility focused on the quality and prospect of patient benefit. Aspects of benefit included physiological effect, weighing benefits and burdens, and quantity and quality of life. Quality and length of life were linked, but many doctors discussed instances in which benefit was determined by quality of life alone. Most described assessing the prospects of achieving patient benefit as a subjective exercise. Despite a broad conceptual consensus about what futility means, doctors noted variability in how the concept was applied in clinical decision making. More than half the doctors also identified treatment that is futile but nevertheless justified, such as short term treatment that supports the family of a dying person.
CONCLUSIONS: There is an overwhelming preference for a qualitative approach to assessing futility, which inevitably involves variability in clinical decision making. Patient benefit is at the heart of doctors' definitions of futility. Determining patient benefit requires discussing with patients and their families their values and goals as well as the burdens and benefits of further treatment.

PMID: 27125807 [PubMed - in process]

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