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Emergency medicine and futile care: Taking the road less travelled


  • Alan O'Connor, MB BCh FACEM, Associate Professor, Director of Emergency Medicine; Sarah Winch, BA, Hons, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Health Care Ethics; William Lukin, MB BS, FACEM, Staff Specialist; Malcolm Parker, MB BS, MLitt, MD, Associate Professor Medical Ethics.

Dr Sarah Winch, School of Medicine, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld 4072, Australia. Email:


Debate around medical futility has produced a vast literature that continues to grow. Largely absent from the broader literature is the role of emergency medicine in either starting measures that prove to be futile, withholding treatment or starting the end of life communication process with patients and families. In this discussion we review the status of the futility debate in general, identify some of the perceived barriers in managing futile care in the ED including the ethical and legal issues, and establish the contribution of emergency medicine in this important debate. We conclude that emergency physicians have the clinical ability and the legal and moral standing to resist providing futile treatment. In these situations they can take a different path that focuses on comfort care thereby initiating the process of the much sought after ‘good death’.