Futility of Treatments: Should an Ethics Committee Decide?
On May 14 2010 the Practical Bioethics Blog had an issue posted by Rosemary Flannigan asking the question “Ethics Committee as Decision Makers?” She wrote:
In New Jersey we have the case of the 73 year old man in a persistent vegetative state for nearly a year, hooked up to a ventilator, dialysis machine and feeding tube because the patient’s daughter did not agree to the futility conclusion reached by the medical staff and who sued—and won—when the hospital placed a “do not resuscitate” sign on his bed and halted dialysis. Oh, we are getting good at endorsing family’s determination about “extraordinary” means—but we are not so good when family won’t agree to our clinical conclusions. So a group of physicians and “bioethics experts” in New Jersey are advocating “for an independent ethics committee to help resolve end-of-life disputes between families and hospitals.”WHOA!! Aren’t we jumping the gun here? Aren’t ethics committees designed to help OTHERS make good decisions? Haven’t we long held the conviction that “ethics committees are not decision-makers”? I see the need for help here, but let’s call it BY ANOTHER NAME.Agree? Disagree? I’m all ears!!! Link: New Jersey needs independent panel to resolve disputes over end-of-life care,Editorial, New Jersey Star-Ledger, May 12, 2010”
I wrote back the following response:
It's all a matter of who's "futility". What is the definition of futility which is being used by the various parties who are alive and contemplating? From the context of physiologic futility, if that is the basis for the physician's and hospital's definition they are fully mistaken. The ventilator, dialysis and feeding tube was, in fact, keeping the patient alive and with that definition the treatments were certainly not futile. Ah! but if the physicians and hospital were basing their decision on quality of life, the conclusion of futility of the treatments could be appropriate---but only if this was the quality of life that the patient DIDN'T want or to be maintained. But who would know what the patient really wanted? Why, of course, it might be the daughter..if she had engaged her father in a discussion of his desires about life if he was ever incapacitated. He may have told her that he didn't want to be kept alive but forever unconscious and not able to participate in life. The daughter says that the treatment is not futile but does that represent her own view or the view of the father? If it is her own personal conclusion it is not what should be considered since if she is acting as a surrogate for her father. It must be her father's view of what he wanted as a quality of life that she should be disclosing. Even if he never talked to her about quality of life, if he was a robust and active man as she might describe him, one might assume that he would want to return to some reasonable degree of awareness and participation in life. Based on the length of debility and the systemic chronic complications this will likely not happen. Would he have wanted his body functions, color, temperature and heart beat to be maintained indefinitely for the benefit of his family? If the daughter knows that this would be what her father wanted, then she was speaking for her father by denying futility. But I would doubt it. The role of the ethics committee in all this? Well, it would be simply to explain everything I wrote above to all the stakeholders: family, physicians and hospital. Unfortunately, the patient would be one stakeholder which will not be informed. Once this is done, it is up to the stakeholders to come to a decision. At that point, the ethics committee in their classic role, can either agree or disagree with the parties and make their view known. The ethics committee will make no final decision, should not make any final decision that will be acted upon. The decision is up to the stakeholders with the daughter speaking for her father. No other named or unnamed committee is necessary.