Research Proposal: Medical Futility and the Vulnerable an In-Depth Analysis

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Medical Futility and the Vulnerables: An in-Depth Analysis of the Concept of Medical Futility

Medical futility is a difficult moral and ethical issue that not only affects the lives of the family and friends of the person, but one that affects the practice from a legal perspective as well. In the case being presented, an 82-year-old woman was refused treatment for a head injury sustained in a car crash. The decision not to operate was made due to her age. She died as a result of her injuries. The proposed research will explore the issues involved in medical decisions based on a person's age. The study will explore the issue of medical futility from the standpoint of an otherwise healthy, elderly patient who has been injured.

What is Medical Futility?

When a doctor makes the decision not to treat a patient because they determine that treatment is medically futile, they are taking a big risk. In essence, they are playing God. In the case of the 82-year-old, who was in otherwise perfect health, this issue can lead to some dangerous legal issues. The case is different where the patient has a terminal illness. All of us will die someday, regardless of the cause; we all will face our death. Old age could be considered to be a terminal illness because as people age, they come closer and closer to the inevitable. Many doctors feel that treating the elderly is futile, because they do not have that many years left anyway.

One of the key issues in medical futility is that medical technology has extended the ability to preserve life, sometimes beyond its natural expectancy. In the example of the healthy 82-year-old, it is difficult to argue that this indeed constituted a medically futile case. No one knows how long a person will live, or what they will accomplish and contribute at any stage in their life. It is possible that this healthy 82-year-old may have written a novel that changed society in her later years. No one knows. However, in this case, it could be argued that this did not constitute a medically futile case, as the person did not have any other known conditions that would threaten her life. The treatment, in this case could possibly have restored her to her previous state of perfect health and vitality for her age.

There is a thin legal line between medically futility and medical negligence. From a legal standpoint, every case is argued on its own merit. These are difficult cases, on both sides of the bench. In this case, there are many legal issues that place the physician who made the decision in jeopardy. For instance, it could be called age discrimination, as the lives of other, younger patients were deemed more important than the elderly woman in question. In this case, the physician and hospital may find their case difficult to defend, particularly if the family decides to sue for negligence.

However, the argument would be different if the elderly woman had terminal cancer or coronary artery disease in addition to the car accident. There is no way to determine when the life of a healthy person will end, in the absence of mitigating circumstances. There is simply not enough known to make a determination in this case. No beds were to be found, despite the physician's attempt to do so. One of the key moral issues that arises in this case is that one must now decide whose life is more important to save. Other questions arise, such as the inability to provide the services required of a hospital. There are many legal and moral issues that arise from this case that could only be answered in a court of law.

Social and Legal Issues

One of the most difficult issues surrounding medical futility and the decision to withhold treatment is that the circumstances surrounding every case are different. The case previously mentioned has many "what ifs." Know one can know for sure what the outcome would have been if the patient had been treated. There is simply no way of knowing. One of the key difficulties in medical futility is that these is no standard of practice that will work in every case.

In order to guide doctors in their decisions, a new tool has been developed that is designed to help doctors make these difficult decisions. This new tool is based on the establishment of clear treatment goals for a specific illness (Mohindra 2007). Every intervention has specific goals that it is intended to accomplish. Some treatments are intended to eliminate a certain condition. Others are supposed to extend life, while others are not expected to extend life, but to improve the quality of life that is remaining. The new factual matrix is based on the probability that the desired treatment will achieve the desired outcome (Mohindra 2007). In the case of the elderly woman, a lack of expectations and outcomes was the key factor that led to early termination of life due to lack of care. In this case, hospitals made decisions based on assumed expectations, but there were no clear parameters established.

One of the most difficult factors in medical futility is that unlike the science that drives medicine itself, medical futility and intervention is a matter of personal opinion, public attitude, and cultural norms surrounding life and death issues (Bagheri, Asai, and Ida 2006). In a study that surveyed Japanese experts regarding medical futility, it was found that 67% believed that a physician's decision to discontinue treatment could never be morally justified (Bagheri, Asai, and Ida 2006). However, 22% did agree that refusal to treat was moral under certain conditions (Bagheri, Asai, and Ida 2006).

This attitude contrasts with a recent opinion issued in Great Britain regarding a case where a terminally ill patient had to sue for the right to receive treatment (Smith 2004). In a similar case, treatment was refused for a 12-year-old boy who was severely disabled. The decision to refuse treatment in this case was based on the opinion that the lives of these two patients were not worth living (Smith 2004). In the UK, the courts decide who has a right to live and who has the societal obligation to die. These ethical conditions differ according to the country of origin.

One of the key concerns about giving control over end of life issues to the court is that it raises fears that lives may be ended prematurely or for the wrong reasons (Mason 2008). Although medical futility judgments are highly controversial, they occur everyday in hospitals in the UK. This can create a power struggle when families and doctors disagree with a doctor's decision to withhold treatment (Gampel 2006). This controversy highlights the need for standards to guide doctors in their decision to withhold treatment when it is considered medically futile to proceed with the treatment.

All medical facilities will be faced with the controversy surrounding medical futility at one time or another (Terra 2006). The Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation Score (APACHE II) has been developed to help guide medical facilities in their decision by providing a mortality prediction score (Terra 2006). This is a highly controversial application because it ignores the human factors involved in these decisions. It has been suggested that this system become a part of routine admissions procedures in an ICU unit (Terrra 2006). A lack of consistent standards makes decisions regarding end of life issues daunting for a healthcare organization.

In the United Kingdom, termination of artificial feeding and hydration for patients that are considered in a vegetative state requires a decision by the high courts (Faunce and Stewart 2005). However, this process is controversial, as the courts must consider both the wishes of the family the opinions of physicians. In the UK, typically, the decisions of the physicians carry more weight than that of the family (Faunce and Stewart 2005). In a recent study, the viewpoint of the patient's perspective when the patient was competent supports the provision of life-saving measures even if it seems futile (Samanta and Samanta 2008). In cases where the patient is competent, there is support for the opinion that they should have the final say. In the case examined in the beginning of this research, it is not known if the patient was competent, or conscious. These factors weigh heavily into ethical decisions regarding life-ending medical decisions.

Medline is a leading source of information for doctors worldwide. They use this service as a guide for their practice on a daily basis. In a recent study, it was found that certain ethnic groups and cultures were over-represented in regards to death and dying issues (del Pozo and Fins 2005). Other cultures and perspectives were under-represented. This study found that decisions to withhold care differed among the various cultures (del Pozo and Fins 2005). Cultural considerations are not addressed in end of life decisions addressed by UK courts. Decisions are made with regard to the dominant… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Medical Futility and the Vulnerable an In-Depth Analysis.  (2009, March 2).  Retrieved December 11, 2019, from

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"Medical Futility and the Vulnerable an In-Depth Analysis."  2 March 2009.  Web.  11 December 2019. <>.

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"Medical Futility and the Vulnerable an In-Depth Analysis."  March 2, 2009.  Accessed December 11, 2019.