Medical ethics and futile care

July 8, 2007  |  General

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.

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2 Comments


  1. I read things like this, and I remember what your job entails. I’m up to the eyes with gratitude that you do what you do and wonderment that you can do it at all.

    Except that’s silly. Or so I tell myself. I’m an objective, intelligent person. I could do the ‘right’ thing, couldn’t I?

    I’d like to thinks so, but more than that, I’d like never to have to put it to the test.

  2. Actually, I’m daily astonished with how nearly everyone can make good decisions. Most folks are wiser and more resilient than then think they are.

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