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Futility often serves as a proposed reason for withholding or withdrawing medical treatment, even in the face of patient and family requests. Although there is substantial literature describing the meaning and use of futility, little of it is specific to emergency medicine. Furthermore, the literature does not provide a widely accepted definition of futility, and thus is difficult if not impossible to apply. Some argue that even a clear concept of futility would be inappropriate to use. This article will review the origins of and meanings suggested for futility, specific challenges such cases create in the emergency department (ED), and the relevant legal background. It will then propose an approach to cases of perceived futility that is applicable in the ED and does not rely on unilateral decisions to withhold treatment, but rather on avoiding and resolving the conflicts that lead to physicians’ believing that patients are asking them to provide “futile” care.