This week’s New England Journal of Medicine carried an excellent editorial by Dr. Robert Truog, a highly-respected medical ethicist at Harvard. It is about futility of care. Most experienced pediatric intensivists, myself included, have encountered situations in which we, the doctors, believe continuing to support a child is unethical because it is not saving the life but prolonging the dying, whereas the child’s parents believe the opposite—that it is unethical to withdraw life support because all life is sacred, no matter the circumstances. Sometimes these situations arise because poor communication causes families to distrust the doctors. But sometimes both sides understand each other clearly, but still disagree profoundly about the proper thing to do. What happens then?
Doctors often make the argument that we should not prolong suffering. Establishing if a patient is actually in pain can be difficult, and anyway we virtually always have the means to relieve pain in these situations. More telling to me is the argument that families cannot compel physicians to act unethically, and most of us regard futile care as unethical. Yet even then the physician can simply withdraw from the case, although from experience I can tell you it is difficult to find another physician to take on cases like this, and abandoning our patient without finding them another physician is clearly unethical (and illegal).
What to do? I have been involved in several cases like the one Dr. Truog describes. Thankfully, in all but one the family and the doctors were ultimately able to reach an understanding both sides accepted. In the one case in which we could not agree, nature ultimately decided things for us, as she often does.
Stories like these remind me that the pediatric intensive care unit is a place where, if we pay attention, we can learn a great deal both about life and about ourselves.
01/25/2011 • A while back the New England Journal of Medicine carried an excellent editorial by Dr. Robert Truog, a highly-respected medical ethicist at Harvard. It is about futility of care. Recently I had occasion to read ...more
05/15/2009 • One of the four key principles of standard medical ethics is the principle of autonomy, which I've written about here. Autonomy means that patients are in control of their own bodies and make the key ...more
03/06/2010 • That's the question noted ethicist (and pediatric intensivist) Robert Truog asks in a recent opinion piece in the New England Journal of Medicine. And it's a good question, one that any experienced intensivist has probably ...more
04/04/2011 • Medical ethics is something we deal with frequently in the PICU. It may sound esoteric, but generally it isn't. Even so, it can be complicated. Complicated or not, it's also something all of us should ...more
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05/11/2013 • This is a topic that comes up from time to time for often spirited discussion. The most recent example comes in a a couple of articles in the New England Journal of Medicine. One was a ...more
12/15/2012 • This little cartoon, courtesy of xkcd, highlights a problem we have had for some time, but which is getting worse--highly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Soon after the first antibiotics appeared, especially penicillin, doctors noticed the phenomenon of ...more
09/11/2012 • Even people who do not follow the controversy about healthcare funding are aware of the fundamental root of the problem: inflation in healthcare costs has long exceeded inflation of everything else in the economy. This ...more