Law & Medicine

When Diet Is an Emergency

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Prognosis depends on how quickly the condition is recognized. Prompt treatment can lead to cure. But treatment delays (or lack of treatment) give the disorder the opportunity to progress, and memory and learning impairment may not completely resolve. Mortality in those untreated is 10% to 20%. And 80% of untreated or undertreated patients will develop Korsakoff psychosis, with severe retrograde and anterograde amnesia, disorientation, and emotional changes.

These factors make Wernicke encephalopathy a medical malpractice risk. If the diagnosis is missed, the damage is clear, substantial, and irreversible—as seen in this unfortunate case. This plaintiff’s attorney had a dream of a closing argument to make: Her client will suffer the effects of brain damage, robbing her of her life, her memory, and her very personality. This damage could have been prevented—not through use of an experimental new procedure or an investigational drug, but through use of a simple and readily available vitamin.

Worse still, cases such as this can involve a punitive element. Jurors would be invited to conclude that treating clinicians ignored the patient and left her to starve in her own bed. Always act in the patient’s best interest—and be attuned to situations that may evolve into claims that the patient was abandoned, neglected, or ignored.

Finally, you must address anything in the patient’s written record that is contrary to your plan. The fact pattern makes clear that a nutritional evaluation was obtained 2 days after the plaintiff’s admission. The dietitian recommended TPN. The record is not clear on why the physician did not order it. If you plan to take an action at odds with a prior observation or recommendation, be sure to clearly explain the rationale supporting your course of treatment. If you perform a risk-benefit analysis that leads you to a different conclusion, document that in the record—preferably with a second opinion from another clinician who supports your decision to deviate from the recommendation.


Nutrition can be critically important. Make sure you consider both short- and long-term consequences of nutritional deficiencies. Bariatric surgery patients have altered anatomy, so be cautious with them. Consider the possibility of thiamine encephalopathy—which can be devastating—when the setting is suggestive. And make sure that all recommendations from other clinicians recorded in the patient’s chart are acted on. If you select a course of treatment that departs from prior recommendation, make clear your risk-benefit analysis and consider obtaining a second opinion in support of your decision.

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