This morning while attending our department’s weekly Surgical Morbidity and Mortality conference, I was struck by how similar the case sounded to so many others that we have discussed in the past. An elderly patient with multiple comorbidities was found to have evidence of an acute abdomen. Unfortunately, the patient was intubated at the time of the surgical consultation, and it was unclear what his wishes would have been. Here was an apparent surgical problem in a very-high-risk patient.
The patient’s family, the medicine team, and the surgery team had several discussions and all agreed that the patient’s condition was very serious and that he would likely die without surgery. In addition, the surgical team felt that the chances for survival even with an exploratory laparotomy were extremely low. After much discussion, the decision was made to operate on the patient. He survived the operation only to have a gradual decline in his condition such that he developed multisystem organ failure. The resident presenting the case noted that eventually the surgical team was convinced that "further treatments were futile" and "after discussing the patient’s condition with the family, the decision was made to withdraw aggressive treatment." The patient was made comfortable and died a short time later.
As the discussion at the M&M conference showed, there were many surgeons present who felt that the outcome was expected and even a few who questioned whether the patient should even have had surgery. These are important issues, but what struck me most was the use of the term "futility" in reference to this patient’s care.
In recent years, there has been significant analysis within the medical ethics literature of the concept of futility. Futility in this context is difficult to define. Moreover, it appears some doctors determine a treatment to be futile as a means of pulling back control from the patient or surrogate who may be asking for a course of action. In other words, if we accept the importance of respecting patient autonomy and if patients/surrogates want a particular treatment, doctors often have difficulty saying "no" unless they define the treatment as futile. Since it is widely accepted that physicians need not offer futile treatments, defining a treatment as futile may be a way to limit the choices for patients/surrogates to consider or request.
In line with much of this literature, I have previously argued that we should "strike the term ["futility"] from our professional lexicon" (World J. Surg. 2009;33:1338-40). However, despite the chorus of suggestions that futility is a problematic concept when it comes to caring for patients, it continues to be used in discussions of actual patient care. I have concluded that it is impossible to eliminate the term "futility." In contrast, perhaps a better approach would be to realize that calling a certain set of treatments "futile" actually provides very little information to the people with whom we are talking. When we say a treatment would be an exercise in futility, we are really saying that in our best medical judgment the likelihood of success is very low. In addition, calling something futile suggests that a careful weighing of burdens and benefits of a particular treatment has been undertaken, and the doctor believes that the burdens so clearly outweigh the benefits that the treatment should not be offered to the patient. Therefore, rather than removing "futility" from our discussions with patients and each other, we should strive to realize how little the term actually conveys to our patients/surrogates.
When we use the term "futile" to describe a treatment, we are saying it just does not make sense in a specific case. The problem is that what a patient/surrogate considers to be the burdens and benefits might differ from what the medical team sees. For example, if an operation has virtually no chance of curing a patient, it might be considered futile. However, if the patient’s primary goal is palliation of certain symptoms for even a few days, then the operation should perhaps be viewed as "potentially beneficial" relative to a particular goal rather than "futile."
Surgeons should remember that the weighing of burdens and benefits requires more than medical knowledge. As such, every time the concept of "futility" is raised in the context of caring for a specific patient, the medical team should carefully explain to the patient/surrogate the benefits and burdens are that are being considered. Since it seems impossible for us to eliminate "futility" from our clinical discussions, let us instead use the term as a reminder to communicate the details and implications of a course of action. In this manner, a surgeon’s assessment of futility might prove an opportunity for further discussions rather than a statement of a definitive conclusion.