Key Ethics Term: Treatment as Not Medically Feasible or Beneficent (“Medically Futile”)

“Medical futility” refers to interventions that are unlikely to produce any significant benefit for the patient.” (Jecker, Ethics in Medicine Website, UWSOM)

But the meaning of ‘benefit’ can be difficult to determine in a particular case. For some patients, for instance, quantity of life will matter more than quality of life. There will be instances when clinicians may feel a treatment does not offer benefit even if it does extend life in the short term, while the patient may feel that any extension in quantity (even if only days or hours) is a benefit. Likewise, there may be times when clinicians disagree among themselves as to whether a treatment is medically feasible or beneficent. Herein lies the conflict.

The term ‘medical futility’ is complicated by the normative valence of ‘futile’, which can have negative connotations and consequences for patients and families. For this reason, many prefer the terminology ‘not medically feasible or beneficent’ to ‘medically futile’.