AMA’s ethics guideline on medical futility policies

Following is an excerpt from the ethics guidelines of the American Medical Association (AMA). The complete guideline can be found on the AMA’s web site at

E-2.037 Medical Futility in End-of-Life Care

When further intervention to prolong the life of a patient becomes futile, physicians have an obligation to shift the intent of care toward comfort and closure. However, there are necessary value judgments involved in coming to the assessment of futility. These judgments must give consideration to patient or proxy assessments of worthwhile outcome. They should also take into account the physician or other provider’s perception of intent in treatment, which should not be to prolong the dying process without benefit to the patient or to others with legitimate interests. They may also take into account community and institutional standards, which in turn may have used physiological or functional outcome measures.

Nevertheless, conflicts between the parties may persist in determining what is futility in the particular instance. This may interrupt satisfactory decision-making and adversely affect patient care, family satisfaction, and physician-clinical team functioning. To assist in fair and satisfactory decision-making about what constitutes futile intervention:

(1) All health care institutions, whether large or small, should adopt a policy on medical futility; and

(2) Policies on medical futility should follow a due process approach. The following seven steps should be included in such a due process approach to declaring futility in specific cases.

  1. Earnest attempts should be made in advance to deliberate over and negotiate prior understandings between patient, proxy and physician on what constitutes futile care for the patient, and what falls within acceptable limits for the physician, family, and possibly also the institution.
  2. Joint decision-making should occur between patient or proxy and physician to the maximum extent possible.
  3. Attempts should be made to negotiate disagreements if they arise, and to reach resolution within all parties’ acceptable limits, with the assistance of consultants as appropriate.
  4. Involvement of an institutional committee such as the ethics committee should be requested if disagreements are irresolvable.
  5. If the institutional review supports the patient’s position and the physician remains unpersuaded, transfer of care to another physician within the institution may be arranged.
  6. If the process supports the physician’s position and the patient/proxy remains unpersuaded, transfer to another institution may be sought and, if done, should be supported by the transferring and receiving institutions.
  7. If transfer is not possible, the intervention need not be offered. (I, V)

Source: "Medical-Futility in End-of Life Care." Issued June 1997, based on the report adopted December 1996. Chicago; American Medical Association.