Introduction The reflex by families and doctors to provide nutrition for the patient who cannot swallow is overwhelming. It is now common practice for such patients to undergo a swallowing evaluation and if there is significant impairment to move forward with feeding tube placement (either nasogastric or gastrostomy) – see Fast Fact #128. Data suggest that in-hospital mortality for hospitalizations in which a feeding tube is placed is 15-25%, and one year mortality after feeding tube placement is 60%. Predictors of early mortality include: advanced age, CNS pathology (stroke, dementia), cancer (except early stage head/neck cancer), disorientation, and low serum albumin.
The Tube Feeding Death Spiral The clinical scenario, the tube feeding death spiral, typically goes like this:
- Hospital admission for complication of “brain failure” or other predictable end organ failure due to primary illnesses (e.g. urosepsis in setting of advanced dementia).
- Inability to swallow and/or direct evidence of aspiration and/or weight loss with little oral intake.
- Swallowing evaluation followed by a recommendation for non-oral feeding either due to aspiration or inadequate intake.
- Feeding tube placed leading to increasing “agitation” leading to patient-removal or dislodgement of feeding tube.
- Re-insertion of feeding tube; hand and/or chest restraints placed.
- Aspiration pneumonia.
- Intravenous antibiotics and pulse oximetry.
- Repeat 4 – 6 one or more times.
- Family conference.
Note: at my institution, the finding of a dying patient with a feeding tube, restraints, and pulse oximetry is known as Weissman’s triad.
- Recognize that the inability to maintain nutrition through the oral route, in the setting of a chronic life-limiting illness and declining function, is usually a marker of the dying process. Discuss this with families as a means to a larger discussion of overall end of life goals.
- Ensure that your colleagues are aware of the key data and recommendations on tube feedings (see Fast Fact #10).
- Ensure there is true informed consent prior to feeding tube insertion—families must be given alternatives (e.g. hand feeding, comfort measures) along with discussion of goals and prognosis.
- Assist families by providing information and a clear recommendation for or against the use of a feeding tube. Families who decide against feeding tube placement can be expected to second guess their decision and will need continued team support.
- If a feeding tube is placed establish clear goals (e.g. improved function) and establish a timeline for re-evaluation to determine if goals are being met (typically 2-4 weeks).
- Finucane TE, et al. Tube feeding in patients with advanced dementia. JAMA. 1999; 282:1365-1369.
- Finucane TE, Bynum JP. Use of tube feeding to prevent aspiration pneumonia. Lancet. 1996; 348:1421-24.
- Cowen ME et al. Survival estimates for patients with abnormal swallowing studies. JGIM. 1997; 12:88-94.
- Rabeneck L, et al. Long term outcomes of patients receiving percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy tubes. JGIM. 1996; 11:287-293.
- Grant MD, et al. Gastrostomy placement and mortality among hospitalized Medicare beneficiaries. JAMA. 1998; 279:1973-1976.
- Mitchell SL. Clinical Crossroads: a 93-year-old man with advanced dementia and eating problems. JAMA. 2007; 298:2527-2536.
- Cervo FA, Bryan L, Farber S. To PEG or not to PEG. A review of evidence for placing feeding tubes in advanced dementia and the decision-making process. Geriatrics. 2006; 61:30-35.
Version History: This Fast Fact was originally edited by David E Weissman MD. 2nd Edition was edited by Drew A Rosielle MD and published October 2007; 3rd Edition June 2015.
Fast Facts and Concepts are edited by Sean Marks MD (Medical College of Wisconsin) and associate editor Drew A Rosielle MD (University of Minnesota Medical School), with the generous support of a volunteer peer-review editorial board, and are made available online by the Palliative Care Network of Wisconsin (PCNOW); the authors of each individual Fast Fact are solely responsible for that Fast Fact’s content. The full set of Fast Facts are available at Palliative Care Network of Wisconsin with contact information, and how to reference Fast Facts.
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