The term "medical futility" is commonly used by health professionals to discuss the appropriateness of a medical treatment option.
A futile intervention is one that
a) is unlikely to be of any benefit to a particular patient in a particular medical situation, and
b) will not achieve the patient's intended goals.
The sticking point in all futility definitions is the concept of benefit, as the perception of benefit is highly subjective. Physicians, patients and families often have very different views on what is potentially beneficial. For example, although a physician may believe that renal dialysis in an elderly demented patient is futile, the family that views preservation of life at all costs as part of their cultural ethos, may view dialysis as an important intervention to continue life.
Furthermore, medical futility can be easily misunderstood as health care rationing.
Two types of futility have been described.
refers to the intervention that has a very small chance of benefiting the patient; the most commonly used number is less than 1% chance of success.
describes a situation in which the quality of benefit an intervention will produce is exceedingly poor. However, neither approach is adequate as there is no consensus on either numeric thresholds for quantitative futility nor shared understanding of what constitutes qualitative benefits.
Adapted from Cuezze JE and Sinclair CT. Palliative Care Network of Wisconsin. Fast facts and concepts #136. Medical futility. Internet. Accessed on June 21, 2016.