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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Experts' attitudes towards medical futility: an empirical survey from Japan

Alireza Bagheri1*, Atsushi Asai2 and Ryuichi Ida1

Author Affiliations

1 Graduate School of Law, Kyoto University, Yoshida, Sakyo-ku, 606-8501 Kyoto, Japan

2 Department of Bioethics, Faculty of Medical and Pharmaceutical Science, Kumamoto University, 1-1-1 Honjo, 860-8556 Kumamoto, Japan

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BMC Medical Ethics 2006, 7:8  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-7-8

Published: 10 June 2006



The current debate about medical futility is mostly driven by theoretical and personal perspectives and there is a lack of empirical data to document experts and public attitudes towards medical futility.


To examine the attitudes of the Japanese experts in the fields relevant to medical futility a questionnaire survey was conducted among the members of the Japan Association for Bioethics. A total number of 108 questionnaires returned filled in, giving a response rate of 50.9%. Among the respondents 62% were healthcare professionals (HCPs) and 37% were non-healthcare professionals (Non-HCPs).


The majority of respondents (67.6 %) believed that a physician's refusal to provide or continue a treatment on the ground of futility judgment could never be morally justified but 22.2% approved such refusal with conditions. In the case of physiologically futile care, three-quarters believed that a physician should inform the patient/family of his futility judgment and it would be the patient who could decide what should be done next, based on his/her value judgment. However more than 10% said that a physician should ask about a patient's value and goals, but the final decision was left to the doctor not the patient. There was no statistically significant difference between HCPs and Non-HCPs (p = 0.676). Of respondents 67.6% believed that practical guidelines set up by the health authority would be helpful in futility judgment.


The results show that there is no support for the physicians' unilateral decision- making on futile care. This survey highlights medical futility as an emerging issue in Japanese healthcare and emphasizes on the need for public discussion and policy development.