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Questions and Answers: Artificial Nutrition and Hydration and End of Life Decision Making

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Is it ever appropriate to give artificial nutrition and hydration to patients who are at the end of life?

Yes. As with any medical treatment, tube feeding and hydration should be given if they contribute to the overall treatment goals for the patient. These treatment goals should always focus on the patient's wishes and interests. If the goal is to keep the patient alive, then artificial nutrition and hydration may be essential treatment. But if the goal is to provide comfort care only, artificial nutrition and hydration usually is not appropriate and may actually add to the person's discomfort.

Some individuals, from personal or religious conviction, may believe that nutrition and fluids always must be given no matter what the condition or prognosis, or how much the patient may be suffering. Because the provision of food and water can have enormous symbolic significance for some, it can have a powerful effect on decisions about the provision of artificial nutrition and hydration. If the symbolic importance exists for the patient, caregivers should respect the patient's wishes to continue treatment. However, if the symbolic importance exists for the family and caregivers, but not necessarily for the patient, the decision to continue artificial nutrition and hydration may need closer examination.

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Is it better to refuse artificial nutrition but to continue hydration?

No. Continuing hydration alone does not necessarily contribute to comfort. It may contribute to discomfort by extending the dying process and delaying the development of a peaceful coma. In addition, continuing hydration may aggravate other symptoms such as cough or shortness of breath. Because patients' intake of fluids decreases substantially at the end of life, any sensation of thirst or dry mouth is generally managed easily with sips of water, ice chips, and good oral care.

What does the law say about artificial nutrition and hydration?

Legally, artificial nutrition and hydration is considered a medical treatment that may be refused at the end of life. If the patient still has the capacity to make decisions, the patient can tell the physician what he or she wants. However, for patients who are too sick to communicate, certain states demand strong evidence that a patient would choose to refuse treatment before the state will permit treatment to be stopped.

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