Fast Fact and Concept #84: Swallow Studies, Tube Feeding and the Death Spiral

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Title: Fast Fact and Concept #84: Swallow Studies, Tube Feeding and the Death Spiral

Author(s): Weissman David E

The reflex by families and doctors to provide nutrition for the patient who cannot swallow is overwhelming. It is now common practice for such patients to undergo a swallowing evaluation and if the patient "fails", to move forward with feeding tube placement (NG, JG). Data suggests that placement of feeding tubes has an in-hospital mortality of 15-25%, and one year mortality of 60%. Not surprisingly, predictors of early mortality include: high age, CNS pathology (CVA, dementia), cancer-except early stage Head/Neck cancer, disorientation, and low albumin.

The clinical scenario, the tube feeding death spiral, typically goes like this:

1. Hospital admission for complication of "brain failure" or other predictable end organ failure due to primary illnesses (e.g. Urosepsis in setting of advanced dementia)
2. Inability to swallow and/or direct evidence of aspiration and/or weight loss with little po intake
3. Swallowing evaluation followed by a recommendation for non-oral feeding either due to aspiration or inadequate intake
4. Feeding tube placed leading to increasing "agitation" leading to patient-removal or dislodgement of feeding tube
5. Re-insertion of feeding tube; hand and/or chest restraints placed
6. Aspiration pneumonia
7. Intravenous antibiotics and pulse oximetry
8. Repeat 4. - 6. one or more times
9. Family conference
10. Death

Note: at my institution, the finding of a dying patient with a feeding tube, restraints and pulse oximetry, is known as Weissman's triad.


  1. Recognize that the inability to maintain nutrition through the oral route, in the setting of a chronic life-limiting illness and declining function, is usually a marker of the dying process. Discuss this with families as a means to a larger discussion of overall end of life goals.
  2. Ensure that your colleagues are aware of the key data and recommendations on tube feedings (see below; see Fast Fact #10: Tube Feed or Not Tube Feed).
  3. Ensure there is true informed consent prior to feeding tube insertion?families must be given alternatives (e.g. hand feeding, comfort measures) along with discussion of goals and prognosis.
  4. Assist families by providing information and a clear recommendation for or against the use of a feeding tube. Families who decide against feeding tube placement can be expected to second guess their decision and will need continued team support.
  5. If a feeding tube is placed establish clear goals (e.g. improved function) and establish a timeline for re-evaluation to determine if goals are being met (typically 2-4 weeks).


Finucane TE, et al. Tube feeding in patients with advanced dementia. JAMA. 1999; 282:1365-1369.

Finucane TE, Bynum JP. Use of tube feeding to prevent aspiration pneumonia. Lancet. 1996; 348:1421-24.

Cowen ME Et al. Survival estimates for patients with abnormal swallowing studies. JGIM 1997; 12:88-94.

Rabeneck L, et al. Long term outcomes of patients receiving percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy tubes. JGIM 1996; 11:287-293.

Grant MD, et al. Gastrostomy placement and mortality among hospitalized Medicare beneficiaries. JAMA 1998;279:1973-1976.

Copyright and Referencing Information: Users are free to download and distribute Fast Facts for educational purposes only. Citation for referencing. Fast Facts and Concepts #85 . Swallow studies, tube feeding and the death spiral. Weissman, DE; February 2003. End-of-Life Physician Education Resource Center www.eperc.mcw.edu.

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Creation Date: 2/2003

Format: Handouts

Purpose: Instructional Aid, Self-Study Guide, Teaching

Training: Fellows, 3rd/4th Year Medical Students, PGY1 (Interns), PGY2-6, Physicians in Practice
Specialty: Anesthesiology, Emergency Medicine, Family Medicine, General Internal Medicine, Geriatrics, Hematology/Oncology, Neurology, OB/GYN, Ophthalmology, Pulmonary/Critical Care, Pediatrics, Psychiatry, Surgery
Non-Physician: Clergy/Chaplains, General Public, Graduate Students, Lawyers, Patients/Families, Nurses, Social Workers

ACGME Competencies: Medical Knowledge, Patient Care

Keyword(s): Advance directives, Antibiotics, Assisted suicide/euthanasia, Autopsy/organ donation, Blood products, Clinical interventions, Cross-cultural care, Decision making capacity/surrogates, Do not rescucitate orders, Ethics, Hydration, Informed consent, Interventional procedures, Non-oral feeding, Radiation or chemotherapy, Rehabilitation, Surgery, Treatment withdrawal, Treatment withholding

The Fast Facts series is distributed for educational use only and does not constitute medical advice. For the most current version of Fast Facts visit the EPERC web site at www.eperc.mcw.edu. This mirror version is provided subject to copyright restrictions for educational use within the Inter-Instutional Collaborating Network on End-of-Life Care (IICN).