Ethical considerations in nutrition support because of provider bias


Medicine’s emotive harms

Clinicians hold more negative attitudes toward certain patients – our implicit bias. It has been suggested that nice patients may be preferred by clinicians and therefore receive more humanistic care.7 Clinicians hold more negative attitudes toward patients with eating disorders than toward other patients. Cases of starvation caused by eating disorders are often seen by clinicians as a form of deviance, which provokes a visceral reaction of anger and frustration. These reactions have been associated with patients’ lack of improvement and personality pathology and with clinicians’ stigmatizing beliefs and inexperience.8 One could argue that this type of unconscious partiality may be worse than intentional harm.

Families and patients often request a treatment as a way to exert their agency. We clinicians may experience ethical dissonance as a result, whether because of ego or because the desired treatment is less favorable (for example, parenteral vs. enteral nutrition). Should maintaining clinical obstinance overrule patient and family autonomy, particularly in the face of the availability of life-saving intervention, even if less desirable than other standard treatments?

Should the physicians have better considered the relative risk of PN? What is the true potential harm? Would it benefit the patient or family? While PN’s benefit is usually life prolongation, it is not without risk of infection, potential mucosal atrophy of the unused gut, hepatic dysfunction, high cost, and an increased complexity of care. However, the incidence of blood stream infections in hospitalized patients receiving PN is only 1 episode for every 100 patient-days of treatment.9 On the other hand, weight regain is a significant determinant of success for treating eating disorders.10 Does the small risk of line-related sepsis, unlikely to be fatal, outweigh the certainty of death from starvation? What is the source of providers’ anger toward such patients? Even when providers feel any hope of improved outcome to be unreasonable, does refusal to provide nourishment, even if less than ideally, improve the likelihood the family will “come to grips” with the situation? Is there an obligation to consider our contribution to the emotional harm to the family because of our refusal, especially if coupled with anger?

Duty of life-saving care

Dr. David S. Seres, Columbia University, New York

Dr. David S. Seres

Treating a competent patient without consent is unlawful. Autonomy is the dominant ethical principle, and a mentally competent person has the right to refuse consent to medical treatment for any reason, even when that decision may lead to death. Authors urge that patient lives should not be intentionally shortened, including the withholding of life-prolonging medical treatments or interventions.11,12 Although starvation can compromise capacity, whether patients with severe starvation have truly lost their mental competence and right to self-determination is debated.13 Do physicians have a duty to provide nutrition support by whatever route a patient will accept as a life-saving measure or at least until nutritional stability and improved mental status can be attained?

Next steps

Despite potential concerns clinicians may have over the risks and disadvantages of PN, reeducation of clinician emotional responses toward providing it is needed. As illustrated by this case study, there are likely situations, not fitting the norm, when PN is warranted as a life-saving measure. An awareness of implicit bias we may experience is paramount in all situations. Case-by-case multidisciplinary evaluations are warranted based on guidelines from professional organizations,14 alongside core ethical principles, when considering nutrition support.

Next Article: