Doctors have no ethical obligation to provide futile treatment. This has been true since the time of Hippocrates who warned physicians not to treat patients who were “overmastered by their disease.” This principle remains valid today but, as the Society for Critical Care Medicine notes, it is difficult to identify treatment as absolutely futile in all but a few clinical situations. Far more common, they note, are “treatments that are extremely unlikely to be beneficial, are extremely costly, or are of uncertain benefit.” These, they say, “may be considered inappropriate and hence inadvisable, but should not be labeled futile.” So what should doctors do when they have a case that seems close to the futility threshold but does not, perhaps, quite cross it? In such cases, is it appropriate to make unilateral decisions to withhold life-sustaining treatment even if the family objects? Or should treatment be provided knowing that it might cause pain and suffering to an infant with no likelihood of benefit? To address these questions, we present a case of an extremely premature infant with a giant omphalocele and ask 3 neonatologists, Dr Dalia Feltman of Evanston Hospital, Dr Theophil Stokes of the Walter Reed Medical Center, and Dr Jennifer Kett, a neonatologist and fellow in bioethics at Seattle Children’s Hospital, to comment.
- Accepted July 9, 2013.
- Copyright © 2014 by the American Academy of Pediatrics