Addressing Futility: A Practical Approach

Piroska K. Kopar, Adrienne Visani, Kyler Squirrell, Douglas E. Brown

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


OBJECTIVES: Limiting or withdrawing nonbeneficial medical care is considered ethically responsible throughout most of critical care and medical ethics literature. Practically, however, setting limits to treatment is often challenging. We review the literature to identify best practices for using the definition of futility as an anchoring concept to aid the ethical practice of ICU clinicians. DATA SOURCES: Source data were obtained from a PubMed literature review. STUDY SELECTION: English language articles were chosen based on relevance to medical futility ethics, end-of-life care in the ICU, or communication and conflict mitigation strategies. DATA EXTRACTION: Independent evaluation of selected articles for recurrent content themes as relevant to our clinical case were compared among authors and based on consensus, quantitative and qualitative data from these sources were referenced directly. DATA SYNTHESIS: When life-sustaining treatment is unlikely to achieve a meaningful benefit such as symptom improvement, continued care may be discordant with the patient's goals. Institutional and cultural norms, unconscious biases, and difficulty with navigating conflicts all influence how un(comfortable) clinicians feel in setting limits to futile care. Defining futility in light of the patient's goals and values, focusing on outcomes rather than interventions, and being proactive in communication with families are the staples of medically meaningful critical care. Palliative measures should be framed affirmatively, and clinicians should be transparent about the limits of medicine. CONCLUSIONS: Clinicians have an ethical obligation not to provide futile care. To practice accordingly, we must clearly understand the nature and forms of futility. Armed with this understanding, our discussions with family and surrogates in the ICU should fundamentally comprise 1) eliciting the patient's values and goals, 2) communicating which interventions serve those values and goals and which do not, and 3) offering only those interventions whose likely outcomes are in line with said values and goals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E0706
JournalCritical Care Explorations
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2022


  • end-of-life care
  • ethics at the end of life
  • futility
  • goals-of-care
  • nonbeneficial care


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