An Extra Reason to Roll the Dice: Balancing Harm, Benefit and Autonomy in 'Futile' Cases

Clinical Ethics 5 (217):219 (2010)
Oncologists frequently have to break bad news to patients. Although they are not normally the ones who tell patients that they have cancer, they are the ones who have to tell patients that treatment is not working, and they are almost always the ones who have to tell them that they are going to die and that nothing more can be done to cure them. Perhaps the most difficult cases are those where further treatment is almost certainly futile, but there remains an extremely slim chance of yet more aggressive treatment having a near-miraculous effect. In such situations, it can be difficult for the oncologist to decide how to explain things to the patient, and how much to tell them. It can also be very difficult to achieve the correct balance between respecting the patient’s autonomy and not exposing them to harm. This paper examines an example of one such case and makes three suggestions. First, that respecting autonomy cannot be achieved by maximising information-sharing only to deny patients the chance to make decisions based on that information; second, that the simplistic application of the principles of nonmaleficence and respect for autonomy can lead to erroneous conclusions about the most ethical course of action; and third, that there is an extra reason, in addition to respecting patients’ autonomy, for attempting near-futile last-ditch interventions: when treating rare conditions, useful evidence can be generated that will benefit future patients.
Keywords Clinical ethics  Medical ethics  End-of-of life issues
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DOI 10.1258/ce.2010.010032
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