A patient with a life-threatening intracranial insult presents a difficult situation to the neurosurgeon. In a few short minutes the neurosurgeon must assess the patient’s neurologic status, imaging, and medical condition then confer with the patient’s proxy regarding treatment. This assessment ideally includes recognition of situations where aggressive care is futile and therefore such treatments should not be offered. The proxy discussion must involve surgical and nonsurgical management options and the impact of these options on survival and residual disability. Surgical decision-making is frequently difficult, even for designated proxies armed with advance directives, as these documents are usually vague with regard to acceptable functional outcomes. To complicate things further, when emergencies are off-hours, housestaff or physician extenders may need to represent the medical team in these discussions so that surgical treatment, if desired, can be arranged expeditiously. These difficulties sometimes lead to the performance of emergent surgical procedures in situations where poor outcome is certain, with deleterious effects to the patient, family, and healthcare system. It is clear then that neurosurgeons as well as their housestaff and extenders should have working knowledge of prognostic information relating to intracranial insults and familiarity with the complex ethical concept of medical futility. In this paper we review the relevant literature and our goal is to juxtapose these topics so as to provide a framework for decision making in that critical time.
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