Futile treatment: the ethicist’s perspective

Dominic J C Wilkinson
Med J Aust 2013; 198 (4): . || doi: 10.5694/mja12.10778
Published online: 4 March 2013

We need to pay attention to the reasons why treatment is judged to be futile

When doctors are confronted with making treatment decisions in the context of a terminally ill patient, the way forward is often difficult and confused. Bringing an ethics perspective to bear on the problem can help to resolve what the essential issues are, in turn enabling a clearer path to appropriate decisions by the people who ought to be making those decisions. In many cases where further treatment of a patient may be thought to be futile, such as John’s case, described by Koczwara,1 the central ethical question is whether treatment is medically inappropriate or futile, and whether, as a consequence, it may be withdrawn or withheld against the wishes of his family.

  • Dominic J C Wilkinson

  • Department of Neonatal Medicine, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA.


I thank Professor Julian Savulescu for his valuable assistance in analysing this topic and developing the figure.

Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.


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