6. CASE: To Feed or Not to Feed?

You receive a call on the ethics line about a patient’s relative (next-of-kin and legal decision-maker) force-feeding her sister who is a patient on the unit (pushing food into the patient’s mouth and then holding her mouth closed, pinching her nose, etc. until she swallows). Apparently, this was not an uncommon approach to getting her to eat in the group home where she had lived very happily for 10 years prior to admission (she is 58 years old). The charge nurse feels this is abusive and dangerous behaviour, not acceptable in the hospital setting, and has told the relative this. The patient currently receiving TPN-GI does not feel she is a candidate for a peg-tube. The psychiatrist has assessed the patient as depressed and medication has been started- it takes several weeks to reach full effect, so the team is waiting to see how this will go. The option of ECT has been looked into also, but the anaesthetist feels the patient is too fragile to receive the sort of sedation needed for this procedure. The team does not feel the patient is appropriate for the acute care orthopedics unit (she is unlikely to walk again, is incontinent, immobile, dependent for ADLs with little sign that this will ever change, so not likely to get back to a group home situation in the community). The team’s concern appears to be “we need our beds for patients we can operate on and fix”, although they have not voiced this opinion explicitly. The charge nurse has learned the patient’s relative is angry with the team because she feels the patient is being discriminated against on the basis of her cognitive and physical disabilities so that PT and OT are not working hard enough with her. Staff says this is not the case- the patient is refusing to participate (originally she was told that if she walked and ate she could get back to her group home- this has not happened and the nurse feels she has given up, and is exerting the only sort of protest she can by not eating or cooperating with staff efforts any longer). Finally, there is concern about the possibility of a feeding tube down the road – should the patient get one if she continues to refuse to eat, even after the depression is adequately treated? Is this a decision the relative can make? There are also questions about the possibility of modifying the patient’s diet to be more palatable to her, realizing that this is also more dangerous given her high risk of aspiration.

  • How would you work through this case?
  • Which issues are ethics issues and which are medical decisions?
  • Who needs to be involved in making necessary decisions to move forward?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Patient-family relationships
  • Respect for professional integrity
  • Moral distress of health care providers
  • Resource allocation
  • Substitute decision-makers
  • Respect for dignity
  • Staff morale
  • Quality of life
  • Duty to provide care
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