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Feeding Tubes Can Harm Dementia Patients

For those suffering from dementia, it is common at some point to experience difficulty swallowing.

Loved ones and health professionals confer at this point and sometimes conclude that a feeding tube may be the best solution to get nourishment to the patient.

However, our Boynton Beach nursing home abuse attorneys have been made aware of a growing body of evidence suggesting that not only are these devices likely not helping dementia patients, they may in fact be harming them.

In the recent case of White Oak Manor v. Lexington Insurance Company, reviewed by the South Carolina Supreme Court, a nursing home and insurance company were having it out over who should pay after a nursing home patient died following injuries sustained from improper placement of a feeding tube.

A feeding tube is a device by which nourishment is delivered through a tube that is inserted directly into the stomach. It is not a minor or benign procedure. If the tube is improperly placed, the consequences could be life-threatening.

Some people consider it a question of whether it amounts to allowing a person to starve to death. This likely explains why about one-third of all nursing home residents who suffer from advanced dementia have feeding tubes. In some cases, nursing home administrators may fear regulatory sanctions if patients start to lose weight.

Even in situations in which the surgery itself has been successful, there is still the chance that the patient could suffer from uncontrolled stomach bleeding, infection or inflammation and inhalation of stomach contents into the lungs.

Beyond cases of medical malpractice, there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest they don’t actually prolong dementia patients’ lives or improve the quality. The tubes also don’t always prevent aspiration in individuals who have trouble swallowing because many could still choke on their own saliva.

Additionally, a recent survey of nursing home residents indicates the vast majority responded they would rather die than have a feeding tube inserted.

For one thing, those who have had the procedure done report it’s extremely uncomfortable. For those with dementia, the process can be especially confusing and even scary. Often, they must be physically restrained or medically sedated in order to prevent them from pulling the tubes out.

This is especially troubling when we consider that in a lot of cases, medical professionals don’t order these tubes because they are medically necessary, but rather as a matter of routine.

This is not to say that feeding tubes can’t be useful. In fact, they do save lives. However, the reality is, they were invented for children and more youthful patients. They first were introduced back in the 1980s, and the idea was they could provide nutrition for children and young adults who were unable to eat. They have proven especially effective for those with certain kinds of digestive disorders, burns or stomach cancers.

However, today, the most common type of patient receiving a feeding tube is an elderly person with dementia. In fact, feeding tube insertion has tripled over the last 20 years.

Some doctors today are offering up an alternative called “comfort feeding,” in which elderly dementia patients are slowly and carefully hand-fed as much food as they want to eat. Allowing them some level of control of the situation helps to preserve dignity, reduce stress and lower the risk of surgical complications.

There may be some situations in which feeding tubes make sense. But our Boynton Beach nursing home negligence lawyers would simply encourage all loved ones to carefully weigh all options before moving forward with such a decision.

Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:
White Oak Manor v. Lexington Insurance Company, Jan. 15, 2014, South Carolina Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Florida Nursing Home Arbitration Agreements: Neither Wise Nor Necessary, Part 1, Jan. 25, 2014, Boynton Beach Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog

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