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Mayo Clin Proc. 2014 Jul;89(7):943-59. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2014.02.005. Epub 2014 Apr 13.

Ten common questions (and their answers) on medical futility.

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Department of Medicine, Section of Palliative Medicine and Biomedical Ethics Program, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. Electronic address:
Department of Anesthesiology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN.


The term medical futility is frequently used when discussing complex clinical scenarios and throughout the medical, legal, and ethics literature. However, we propose that health care professionals and others often use this term inaccurately and imprecisely, without fully appreciating the powerful, often visceral, response that the term can evoke. This article introduces and answers 10 common questions regarding medical futility in an effort to define, clarify, and explore the implications of the term. We discuss multiple domains related to futility, including the biological, ethical, legal, societal, and financial considerations that have a bearing on definitions and actions. Finally, we encourage empathetic communication among clinicians, patients, and families and emphasize how dialogue that seeks an understanding of multiple points of view is critically important in preventing or attenuating conflict among the involved parties.

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