At times patients (or their surrogates) request interventions that the physician judges not to be medically appropriate. Such requests are particularly challenging when the patient is terminally ill or suffers from an acute condition with an uncertain prognosis and therapeutic options range from aggressive, potentially burdensome life-extending intervention to comfort measures only. Requests for interventions that are not medically appropriate challenge the physician to balance obligations to respect patient autonomy and not to abandon the patient with obligations to be compassionate, yet candid, and to preserve the integrity of medical judgment.
Physicians should only recommend and provide interventions that are medically appropriate—i.e., scientifically grounded—and that reflect the physician’s considered medical judgment about the risks and likely benefits of available options in light of the patient’s goals for care. Physicians are not required to offer or to provide interventions that, in their best medical judgment, cannot reasonably be expected to yield the intended clinical benefit or achieve agreed-on goals for care. Respecting patient autonomy does not mean that patients should receive specific interventions simply because they (or their surrogates) request them.
Many health care institutions have promoted policies regarding so-called “futile” care. However, physicians must remember that it is not possible to offer a single, universal definition of futility.” The meaning of the term “futile” depends on the values and goals of a particular patient in specific clinical circumstances.
As clinicians, when a patient (or surrogate on behalf of a patient who lacks decision-making capacity) request care that the physician or other members of the health care team judge not to be medically appropriate, physicians should:
(a) Discuss with the patient the individual’s goals for care, including desired quality of life, and seek to clarify misunderstandings. Include the patient’s surrogate in the conversation if possible, even when the patient retains decision-making capacity.
(b) Reassure the patient (and/or surrogate) that medically appropriate interventions, including appropriate symptom management, will be provided unless the patient declines particular interventions (or the surrogate does so on behalf of a patient who lacks capacity).
(c) Negotiate a mutually agreed-on plan of care consistent with the patient’s goals and with sound clinical judgment.
(d) Seek assistance from an ethics committee or other appropriate institutional resource if the patient (or surrogate) continues to request care that the physician judges not to be medically appropriate, respecting the patient’s right to appeal when review does not support the request.
(e) Seek to transfer care to another physician or another institution willing to provide the desired care in the rare event that disagreement cannot be resolved through available mechanisms, in keeping with ethics guidance. If transfer is not possible, the physician is under no ethical obligation to offer the intervention.
As leaders within their institutions, physicians should encourage the development of institutional policy that:
(f) Acknowledges the need to make context sensitive judgments about care for individual patients.
(g) Supports physicians in exercising their best professional judgment.
(h) Takes into account community and institutional standards for care.
(i) Uses scientifically sound measures of function or outcome.
(j) Ensures consistency and due process in the event of disagreement over whether an intervention should be provided.
AMA Principles of Medical Ethics: I, IV, V
Visit the Ethics main page to access additional Opinions, the Principles of Medical Ethics and more information about the Code of Medical Ethics.