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Conditions and consequences of medical futility—from a literature review to a clinical model
  1. R Löfmark1,
  2. T Nilstun2
  1. 1Department of Medicine, County Hospital, Gävle, Sweden
  2. 2Department of Medical Ethics, University of Lund, Lund, Sweden
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr R Löfmark, Department of Medicine, County Hospital, SE-801 87 Gävle, Sweden;


Objectives: To present an analysis of “futility” that is useful in the clinical setting.

Design: Literature review.

Material and methods: According to Medline more than 750 articles have been published about medical futility. Three criteria (language, time period, and the authors expressed their own opinions) singled out 43 of them. The authors' opinions about futility were analysed using the scheme: “If certain conditions are satisfied, then a particular measure is futile” and “If a particular measure is futile, then certain moral consequences are implied”.

Results: Regarding conditions, most authors stated that judgments about futility should be made by physicians. The measure was usually some kind of medical treatment, and the goals related to quality of life, physiological improvement, or prolongation of life. The probability of success in reaching the goal was in most cases described in semiquantitative terms. Regarding consequences, the authors stated that health care professionals may (sometimes ought or should) withhold or withdraw a futile measure, most often after a dialogue with the patient (29 articles), but sometimes without informing the patient (nine articles), or with one-way information (four articles). Over time more and more articles recommend that the patient should be involved in joint decision making. Based on this literature review a clinical model was developed.

Conclusions: The model, requiring that conditions and consequences should be made explicit, may, in “futility situations”, facilitate both the collection of the necessary information and make the moral implications visible. It also makes communication about measures considered to be futile possible without using such ambiguous terms as “futile”.

  • Communication
  • conceptual analysis
  • decision making
  • futility
  • patients
  • physicians

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