Letters to the Editor

Use of Feeding Tubes in Elderly Patients with Dementia

Am Fam Physician. 2002 Nov 15;66(10):1836-1838.

to the editor: Dr. Li's article, “Feeding Tubes in Patients with Severe Dementia,”1 was an excellent review of the literature on this topic. While approximately 30 percent of percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tubes are placed in patients with dementia, the author elucidates that patients with dementia have poor outcomes after PEG tube placement. Feeding tubes may ease the care for some patients but, in my opinion, they also distance the patient from human contact and take away one of their last pleasurable activities. I am concerned about our increasing elderly population and the overuse of PEG tubes in populations where their use is unproven and potentially harmful.

PEG tubes were first used in 1980, with the conclusion that they would improve nutrition, promote healing, and prevent aspiration in all patients.2 Even though certain subsets of patients fare poorly with feeding tubes, I have found that few medical professionals stratify patients into different risk groups. This observation was made most clear during a chart review that I conducted with regard to spiritual history taking in chronically ill elderly patients. I reviewed the charts of 42 patients over 65 years of age who underwent PEG placement and found that almost half of them did not have an indication for the PEG and/or did not have a procedure note for the PEG in the chart. Why is PEG placement treated differently than any other surgical intervention? Why are surgeons being reimbursed for a procedure for which they do not even list an approved indication?

If placing PEG tubes in patients with advanced dementia were shown to improve quality of life, then I would recommend them in all of my patients who are malnourished or who have dementia. However, a survey of relatives of patients with PEG tubes in nursing homes in both Canada and the United States found that: (1) family members often regret having placed a PEG in their relative; (2) 60 percent did not feel it improved quality of life; and (3) 61 percent would not want a PEG for themselves in a similar situation.3

Feeding tubes are a beneficial medical intervention in select populations. Education of families, doctors, and ancillary staff about the failure of PEG tubes in elderly patients with dementia is necessary to decrease the number of unnecessary and potentially harmful procedures. As with all medical care, objective evidence rather than assumptions should guide treatment decisions regarding PEG tubes.

REFERENCES

1. Li I. Feeding tubes in patients with severe dementia. Am Fam Physician. 2002;65:1605–10.

2. Cappell MS, Waye JD, Farrar JT, Sleisenger MH. Fifty landmark discoveries in gastroenterology during the past 50 years. A brief history of modern gastroenterology at the millenium: Part I. Gastrointestinal procedures and upper gastrointestinal disorders. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2000;29:223–63.

3. Mitchell SL, Berkowitz RE, Lawson FM, Lipsitz LA. A cross-national survey of tube-feeding decisions in cognitively impaired older persons. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2000;48:391–7.

Send letters to Kenneth W. Lin, MD, MPH, Associate Deputy Editor for AFP Online, e-mail: afplet@aafp.org, or 11400 Tomahawk Creek Pkwy., Leawood, KS 66211-2680.

Please include your complete address, e-mail address, and telephone number. Letters should be fewer than 400 words and limited to six references, one table or figure, and three authors.

Letters submitted for publication in AFP must not be submitted to any other publication. Possible conflicts of interest must be disclosed at time of submission. Submission of a letter will be construed as granting the American Academy of Family Physicians permission to publish the letter in any of its publications in any form. The editors may edit letters to meet style and space requirements.


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