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The debate in medical futility decisionmaking centers on the conflict between a patient insisting treatment and a doctor refusing to furnish it. Courts have taken two disparate approaches to the legal status of medical futility. Believing that such legal ambiguity may reflect ambiguity in the medical profession itself, this research report sought to identify any emerging consensus among professionals handling medical futility issues.

The report explains the results of the Life Sustaining Treatment Survey, a nationwide survey of health care professionals at hospitals. Presented with a list of criteria, respondents assigned important ratings to the factors used in recent futility decisions at their institutions.

The resulting data suggests that there is no consensus among professionals in medical futility decisionmaking. The data supports at least three distinct approaches for making futility decisions: emphasis on the patients’ preferences; providing for the patient and family; and adhering to objective medical and social norms.

It is unlikely that the law will realize its full potential to regulate futility judgments until explicitly articulated professional standards emerge. This article advocates continued empirical research to document and test professional judgment principles. Such research may ultimately help identify factors that will form the basis for a consensus in medical futility decisionmaking.