A medical treatment is a therapy or technique used to remediate a health condition, following a diagnosis. It may be physical, such as a suturing wound, application of a cast or other device to immobilize an injured part of the body, or chemical, such as a splint or antibiotic ointment. It may also be nonphysical, such as acupuncture or a variety of alternative medicines and therapies, but only when a physician has specifically recommended them to a patient.
Many advanced industrial countries have universal health care systems that guarantee access to medical treatment regardless of ability to pay. In such systems, patients typically visit physicians regularly to obtain preventive services and to diagnose and treat chronic or acute illnesses. Physicians are usually trained in a specific specialty, such as family medicine or internal medicine. Various subspecialties include pediatrics, endocrinology (the study of disorders of the hormone system) and neurology, which is concerned with diseases of the nervous system. Other specialties, such as obstetrics and gynecology or psychiatry, are concerned with the care of pregnant women and children or the treatment of mental illness and addictive behaviors.
The practice of medicine is based on scientific research, and modern medical education requires an understanding of the principles of biological, epidemiologic and experimental sciences, as well as the mathematics of probability and statistics. Physicians must be able to interpret and apply this knowledge to individual cases in order to understand the causes and distribution of disease. In addition, a physician must be able to communicate with his or her patient in an objective and understandable manner.
An essential component of a physician’s job is to help patients understand the benefits and risks of treatments. In the case of treatments that are not beneficial, or even harmful, a physician must be able to explain why they are not appropriate in the context of a patient’s values.
Physicians must be able to discuss futility with patients or their designated surrogates in a way that is respectful and leads to viable choices. This is a difficult task that can be complicated by cultural differences and disagreements about the benefits of treatment.
A physician’s decision to withhold or withdraw a medically futile treatment is one of the most difficult, yet ethically correct, professional choices. The concept of medical futility is a vital one that a physician must be able to use, even if he or she disagrees with the patient’s preferences. Physicians should always engage in active discussions with their patients and their surrogates, clarifying what values are most important to them and respectfully elucidating all options for care. They must also exercise judicious use of their power when withholding or withdrawing treatment that is deemed inappropriate. Only then can physicians hope to provide the best possible care for their patients.