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J Med Philos. 1995 Apr;20(2):109-21.

Conceptual and moral disputes about futile and useful treatments.

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Department of Medical Humanities, School of Medicine, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina 27858-4354, USA.


A series of cases have crystallized disputes about when medical treatments are useful or futile, and consequently about the doctor-patient relationship, resource allocation, communication, empathy, relief of suffering, autonomy, undertreatment, overtreatment, paternalism and palliative care. It is helpful to understand that utility and futility are complimentary concepts and that judgments about whether treatments are useful or futile in the contested cases have common features. They are: (1) grounded in medical science, (2) value laden, (3) at or near the threshold of utility, and (4) burdensome. No schema for line-drawing escapes borderline cases and we should focus upon justification of the empirical, ethical and evaluative components underlying these judgments, rather than make an arbitrary decision about whether doctors, patients or societal consensus should be the final arbiter.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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