Earlier this week, I read about a hospital program that provides medical stabilization for patients with eating disorders. The medical director of this program wrote that if a patient “refuses” meals and liquid supplements, the staff observes the patient, without intervention, for approximately 48 hours. If the patient continues to “refuse” nourishment after that point, the physician and psychologist have a discussion with the patient about using a nasogastric tube, but recommend oral feeding instead.
Disheartened to read about this hospital’s approach, I politely asked the medical director to explain the medical or psychological rationale for waiting 48 hours before providing a hospitalized, medically unstable eating disorder patient with some form of nourishment. Her response was that most patients with anorexia “are not at increased at increased medical risk by waiting one or two days to begin serious re-feeding.” Further, she wrote that it is “medically and psychologically safer” for patients to under-eat for a couple of days and then start re-feeding, when they are “fully committed to the process and trusting the treatment staff.”
I don’t have a medical degree, but I do know more than the average person about the medical complications of eating disorders. I’m not aware of any medical reason why it would be safer for a low-weight, medically-compromised anorexic patient to go without any nourishment, or without sufficient nourishment, for ANY period of time, let alone 48 hours. It is my understanding that re-feeding should begin as soon as possible. Clearly, severely malnourished patients who are at risk for re-feeding syndrome should be started on a low-calorie meal plan which is gradually increased by several hundred calories each day until they reach an appropriate caloric level for weight restoration. But still, the re-feeding process should begin immediately, right? Am I missing something here?
I do have a doctorate in psychology and a thorough understanding of eating disorders, and I am well aware of the potential psychological repercussions of this hospital’s approach. Critically ill patients with eating disorders are not “refusing” nourishment. They are suffering from a disease that renders them unable to nourish themselves or accept nourishment from others without a fight. Even if it were the case that people with anorexia “won’t” eat, rather than “can’t” eat, I would still argue that society in general, and the healthcare establishment in particular, has a moral obligation prevent people with mental illness from inflicting damage upon their bodies and brains.
For a person with a mild eating disorder who is being treated on an outpatient basis, it is unacceptable, and counter-productive to recovery, to under-eat for even one meal. Imagine, then, a severely ill, medically compromised patient who is admitted to a hospital, most likely after years of unsuccessful outpatient or residential treatment, being presented with a choice of whether, what, or how much to eat. Eating disorder patients need to be protected from their symptoms, which not only wreak havoc on their bodies, but cause unrelenting psychological anguish as well. Food is not optional for anyone. Full nutrition, as soon as possible and by whatever means necessary, cannot be presented as optional in eating disorder recovery.
The medical director of this hospital program wrote that, after approximately 48 hours of not eating or under-eating, patients can begin re-feeding “fully committed to the process and trusting the treatment staff.” I disagree with this assertion. Patients with eating disorders are rarely, if ever, “fully committed to the process” until they are much further along in their recovery. This anosognosia is a symptom of their illness, and it’s not likely to disappear after two more days of starvation. Further, “trusting the treatment staff” is not a necessary prerequisite for re-feeding. Eating disorders do not “trust” healthcare professionals because the role of healthcare professionals, at least in theory, is to annihilate eating disorders. Gaining the trust of the patient, however, is a different story. I would wonder how a patient could ever trust a staff that stood by as she starved for a couple of days. If you can’t count on a medical stabilization program to ensure full nutrition and protect you from your illness, then who can you rely upon?