Even when treatment won’t help, doctors recommend it, study finds


The futile treatment of patients occurs when doctors know what they’re prescribing won’t help, but they recommend it anyway.

A startling 96 percent of doctors surveyed in a study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics put themselves in the hot seat when it comes to providing futile treatment to patients at the end of life.

Physicians confessed that they need to learn to communicate better, be mindful of their emotional attachment to patients and be willing to deal with the murky emotional issues related to death and dying, according to the study, which included 96 Australian doctors across 10 specialties.

“Doctors’ natural tendency is to treat in this way, and to take another path requires one or more conversations with the patient and family,” Lindy Willmott, Ph.D., a law professor at Australia's Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane and the lead author, told Reuters Health. “Such conversations are difficult, and doctors are time-poor.”

Patients and their families also have a role to play. They need to be proactive in navigating these difficult discussions about patients’ end-of-life wishes, according to Wilmott. That’s because 91 percent of doctors said family and patient requests for treatment, prognostic uncertainty and lack of awareness about patients’ wishes led to futile treatments.

Hospital-related causes--including specialization, medical hierarchy and time pressures--also contribute to futile care, say nearly 70 percent of the physicians in the study.

- read the study abstract
- check out the article