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Original Contributions
January 11, 1995

Use of the Medical Futility Rationale in Do-Not-Attempt-Resuscitation Orders

Author Affiliations

From the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program (Dr Curtis), Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care (Drs Curtis and Park), Department of Biostatistics (Ms Krone), and Division of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine (Dr Pearlman), Department of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle; and the Seattle Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Drs Park and Pearlman).

JAMA. 1995;273(2):124-128. doi:10.1001/jama.1995.03520260046031

Objective.  —To describe the use of the medical futility rationale in do-not-attempt-resuscitation (DNAR) orders written for medical inpatients.

Design.  —Structured interviews with medical residents.

Methods.  —Second- and third-year internal medicine residents (n=44) were telephoned weekly and briefly interviewed about each patient who received a DNAR order in the preceding week.

Setting.  —Two university-affiliated hospitals: a veterans affairs medical center and a municipal hospital.

Patients.  —One hundred forty-five medical inpatients for whom DNAR orders were written during their hospitalization.

Results.  —Residents stated that the medical futility rationale applied for 91 patients (63%), but this rationale was invoked independent of patient or surrogate choice for only 17 patients (12%). Of the 91 patients for whom futility applied, both quantitative futility (low probability of success) and qualitative futility (poor quality of life if cardiopulmonary resuscitation [CPR] were performed) applied to 45 (49%), quantitative futility alone to 30 (33%), and qualitative futility alone to 16 (18%). Residents report that they discussed resuscitation issues with all communicative patients for whom the medical futility rationale was invoked. Among patients for whom quantitative futility applied, residents'predictions of the probability that patients would survive to hospital discharge after CPR varied from 0% (for 60% of patients) to 75%. For 32% of these patients, residents predicted survival at 5% or more. Logistic regression modeling showed that the presence of organ failure (odds ratio [OR], 8.9; 95% confidence interval [CI], 3.3 to 23.9), the residents' estimates of the probability of surviving CPR (OR, 0.94; 95% CI, 0.88 to 0.99), and nonwhite race (OR, 2.7; 95% CI, 1.1 to 6.3) were associated with the determination of quantitative futility. In one third of the cases where qualitative futility applied, residents made the judgment of qualitative futility without discussing quality of life with communicative patients. Logistic regression modeling showed immobility (OR, 3.2; 95% CI, 1.1 to 9.0) and age ≥75 years (OR, 0.3; 95% CI, 0.1 to 0.8) to be associated with the determination of qualitative futility.

Conclusions.  —While residents did not appear to use the medical futility rationale to avoid discussing DNAR issues with patients, we found evidence of important misunderstandings of the concepts of both quantitative and qualitative futility. If the futility rationale is to be applied to withholding or withdrawing medical interventions, practice guidelines for its use should be developed, and education about medical futility must be incorporated into medical school, residency training, and continuing medical education programs.(JAMA. 1995;273:124-128)