Why are we doing this case? Can perioperative futile care be defined?

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Purpose of review

The present review addresses the question of whether perioperative futility can be defined.

Recent findings

Although attempts have been made to define futility in medicine, all proposed definitions are inadequate and as a result there has been a shift to a procedural conflict de-escalation approach to addressing clinical questions of futility. Informed consent is central to the problem of deciding whether an operative procedure may be futile and the criteria for adequate consent by either a patient or surrogate decision-maker are reviewed. An adequately informed patient or surrogate may, nevertheless, desire to proceed with a procedure considered futile by some members of the medical team as a result of conflicting values. The basis for this and the ‘economy of hope’ in which extremely ill patients with few treatment options are invested, is explored. The particular role of the anesthesiologist in deciding whether an operative procedure may be futile is examined. Three potential positions are suggested: the anesthesiologist as service provider, consultant, or gatekeeper.


The present review will provide anesthesiologists with critical insight into the historical scholarship and current recommended process to address questions of perioperative futility.

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