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
Leave a Reply
10/08/2014 • Efforts to reduce overuse of health care services run counter to the dominant financial incentives in our fee-for-service system, challenge the cultural assumption that more is better, and raise concerns about stinting on necessary care. That ...more
06/11/2014 • Complicated medical procedures can be dangerous, even when done by highly skilled and experienced people. Why? Because, irrespective of the procedural risk itself, all of us are human and we can overlook or forget things, ...more
01/16/2014 • Gastroenteritis, often called "stomach flu," is common in children. It has nothing to do with influenza, the "true flu," which is caused by a respiratory virus. Gastroenteritis is caused by a different set of viruses. ...more