Outcomes from cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) remain distressingly poor. Overuse of CPR is attributable to unrealistic expectations, unintended consequences of existing policies and failure to honour patient refusal of CPR. We analyzed the CPR outcomes literature using the bioethical principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy and justice and developed a proposal for selective use of CPR. Beneficence supports use of CPR when most effective. Non-maleficence argues against performing CPR when the outcomes are harmful or usage inappropriate. Additionally, policies which usurp good clinical judgment and moral responsibility, thereby contributing to inappropriate CPR usage, should be considered maleficent. Autonomy restricts CPR use when refused but cannot create a right to CPR. Justice requires that we define which medical interventions contribute sufficiently to health and happiness that they should be made universally available. This ordering is necessary whether one believes in the utilitarian standard or wishes medical care to be universally available on fairness grounds. Low-yield CPR fails justice criteria. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation should be performed when justified by the extensive outcomes literature; not performed when not desired by the patient or not indicated; and performed infrequently when relatively contraindicated.
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