Decisions regarding forgoing life-sustaining treatments

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Purpose of review

Decisions to forego life-sustaining treatments are complex, and disagreements between physicians and patients occur. This review discusses recent findings regarding what factors influence physicians and patients or their surrogates in these decisions and considers whether futility arguments regarding life-sustaining treatments should be abandoned.

Recent findings

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation is one paradigm in the literature for studying end-of-life decision-making. Outcomes for cardiopulmonary resuscitation are poor, and physicians tend to over-rely on tacit versus evidence-based knowledge for resuscitation decisions. Physician decisions are often inherently biased regarding elderly and intellectually impaired patients. Patient decisions regarding life-sustaining treatments are poorly understood by physicians, and also include inherent bias against the elderly and intellectually impaired. Although patients and their decision-makers frequently incorporate religious or spiritual beliefs in their decisions, physicians rarely discuss these factors with them. Defining ‘futility’ is problematic, and futility arguments have limited utility in clinical end-of-life treatment discussions.


Further research is needed about factors that affect both physicians and patients with regard to forgoing life-sustaining interventions. Physicians need more information regarding religious/spiritual preferences of patients and decision-makers. ‘Futility’ arguments in end-of-life decision-making are flawed and should probably be abandoned.

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