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Regulating Medical Futility: Neither Excessive Patient's Autonomy Nor Physician's Paternalism

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In the era of an aging population and escalating healthcare costs, the futility debate has become the object of extended critical attention. The issue has divided experts in relevant fields into two camps. The proponents of medical futility defend the physician's exclusive right to determine the futility of treatment and decide whether treatment should be withheld or withdrawn. On the other hand, opponents believe that a discourse of power lies at the heart of the futility debate. They believe that medical futility was constructed, in part, as a means of enhancing the physician's domination in a context wherein medical authority was threatened.

This paper presents some current approaches to the futility debate and highlights positions taken by physicians and bioethicists. It concludes that establishing an operational guideline, either at hospital or national level, is a critical requirement for resolving problems posed by futility. It suggests that policies should not be based on either excessive patient's autonomy or physician's paternalism.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Medical Ethics, Tehran University of Medical Science, Iran Visiting Scholar; Center for Biomedical Ethics and Law, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium


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