Taking care of a loved one at the end of their life is an incredibly difficult but necessary act. As heartbreaking as the situation is, it’s important to make informed decisions based solely on the patient’s best interests. That may mean helping your loved one meet their end with as much dignity and as little suffering as possible.

Futile care is excessive medical intervention for the purpose of prolonging a patient’s life without consideration for their suffering or their wishes.

Let’s take a closer look at this concept from the perspective of health law.

Definition of futile care

According to Quebec’s Thésaurus de l’activité gouvernementale, the definition of futile care is as follows (translated from French):

Administering intensive treatment to a terminally ill person in order to prolong their life without any real hope of improving their state of health. (Source: Report – MSSS, 2013) Note(s): According to the Quebec Civil Code, no person may be subjected to treatment without their consent. Futile care is prohibited.

Futile care is health care that is provided for the sole purpose of keeping a person alive, even if there is no chance of recovery. If a treatment involves extraordinary measures that serve only to delay a person’s inevitable death, it may be considered futile care.

How to distinguish futile care from appropriate treatment

Distinguishing futile care from appropriate treatment can be more complex than it seems. How do you determine whether a last-ditch treatment will save a person’s life or cause them further harm?

The truth is that there is no simple answer. Each situation is unique, so the judgement is generally left to the patient’s doctor, who must strike a delicate balance between alleviating their suffering and delaying inevitable death. Section 58 of the Code of Ethics of Physicians stipulates that “a physician must, when the death of a patient appears to him to be inevitable, act so that the death occurs with dignity. He must also ensure that the patient obtains the appropriate support and relief.” Doctors also have the responsibility to act in accordance with scientific data.

The stipulations contained in the Code of Ethics of Physicians can present a difficult dilemma for doctors. They may end up halting necessary treatment too early for fear of administering futile care, or subjugate their patient to excessive medical intervention in order to ensure that everything possible has been done to save them.  

In many cases, legal recourse is required to determine whether either of these scenarios has occurred.

Futile care from a legal perspective

In accordance with the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Civil Code of Quebec, a treatment that serves no purpose other than unduly prolonging a person’s life without alleviating their suffering or improving their quality of life will generally be rejected by the Court in case of refusal of care.

Regardless of the type of care provided, the patient or their legal representatives must always give consent in accordance with personal inviolability laws.

However, patients and their legal representatives may not demand futile medical care from a doctor. If the parties involved disagree on the extent of the care that should be provided, the issue will be decided in court based on the principles discussed above.

Fight for your health care rights with the help of MedLégal

In short, futile care refers to continuing treatment for the sole purpose of prolonging a terminal patient’s life against their best interests. It goes against the Code of Ethics of Physicians, the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Civil Code of Quebec.

If you need a health lawyer for counsel on a futile care case, the MedLégal team can help! Every day, our firm defends the rights of Quebecers who have experienced medical injustice.

Contact us to schedule a consultation.

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