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Australian Health Review Australian Health Review Society
Journal of the Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association

Futile treatment – when is enough, enough?

Roy G. Beran A B C D E * and J. A. Devereux F
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Department of Neurology, Liverpool Hospital, PO Box 598, Northbridge, Sydney, NSW 1560, Australia.

B Ingham Institute of Applied Science, South Western Sydney Health District, Liverpool, NSW, Australia.

C South Western Clinical School, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, Australia.

D School of Medicine, Griffith University, Southport, Qld, Australia.

E School of Medicine, Blacktown Hospital, Western Sydney University, Sydney, NSW, Australia.

F Law School, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld, Australia.

* Correspondence to:

Australian Health Review 48(1) 103-107
Submitted: 9 November 2023  Accepted: 19 January 2024  Published: 1 February 2024

© 2024 The Author(s) (or their employer(s)). Published by CSIRO Publishing on behalf of AHHA.



This paper examines two aspects of treatment decision making: withdrawal of treatment decisions made by a patient; and decisions to not proceed with treatment by a health professional. The paper aims to provide an overview of the law relating to the provision of treatment, then highlight the uncertainty as to the meaning of and costs associated with futile treatment.


The paper reviews the current legal and medical literature on futile treatment.


Continuing treatment which is futile is not in the patient’s best interests. Futility may be understood in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Recent legal cases have expanded the definition of futility to focus not on the nature of the treatment itself, but also on the health of the patient to whom treatment is provided.


As Australia’s population ages, there is likely to be an increased focus on the allocation of scarce health resources. This will, inevitably, place constraints on the number and variety of treatments offered to patients. The level of constraint will be felt acutely where a proposed treatment offers little clinical efficacy. It is time to try to understand and agree on a workable definition of futility.

Keywords: costs, consent to treatment, futility, health law, primary health care.


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