Conference Coverage

How to handle anorexia in community hospitals

Food is nonnegotiable



– Everyone has to be on the same page when it comes to anorexia nervosa in a community hospital, according to pediatric hospitalists at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, N.C.

Dr. Suresh Nagappan, Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, NC M. Alexander Otto/MDedge News

Dr. Suresh Nagappan

Anorexia cases used to be rare there. When one came in, “everyone was anxious because we just didn’t know quite what to do,” said Suresh Nagappan, MD, a pediatrician and member of the teaching faculty at the hospital. Parents would hear one thing from one provider, something else from the next, and leave angry and confused. “Basically, it was a mess. We needed to standardize it,” he added.

So Dr. Nagappan and his colleagues created guidelines for treating patients with eating disorders about 3 years ago. “It was meeting after meeting for months, but well worth it,” he said at Pediatric Hospital Medicine.

Word of the hospital’s newfound expertise in anorexia has spread since then, and now it’s not unusual for Moses H. Cone to handle a few cases a week.

The pediatric hospitalist team has come to realize that, first and foremost, patients and families need to know why they are there; it’s about medical stabilization, not treating the eating disorder. That comes after discharge. Families need help sometimes to understand that it’s not a quick fix.

To make things clear, there’s strict criteria now for admission, based on American Academy of Pediatrics guidance. The main trigger is being under 75% of ideal body weight, but patients must also have systolic blood pressure below 90 mm Hg and other worrisome signs. “Sometimes, it feels like we’re splitting hairs” on who gets admitted, “but if we don’t have strict criteria on admission, we don’t have an end goal for discharge,” said pediatrician Maggie S. Hall, MD, also on the Moses H. Cone teaching faculty.

As for treatment, “food is medicine, and it’s not negotiable. We make that clear to everyone on day 1. If patients don’t eat their actual meal, they have 20 minutes to drink a supplement. If they can’t do that, they get a nasogastric tube,” Dr. Nagappan said. The tube is pulled after each meal, so that it remains an incentive to eat.

The team start patients with 1,600 calories a day and increase the intake by 200-250 calories a day. The goal is for a patient to gain 100-200 grams per day. Patients pick out what they want to eat with the help of a dietitian. When meals set off overwhelming anxiety, the Moses H. Cone team has learned that benzodiazepines can help.

Ironically, the initiation of regular meals is the most dangerous time for patients. As anorexic bodies switch from catabolic to anabolic metabolism, electrolytes can drop to dangerously low levels, causing arrhythmias, heart failure, and death. In general, “the reason these kids die is cardiac,” Dr. Nagappan said at the meeting, sponsored by the Society of Hospital Medicine, the AAP, and the Academic Pediatric Association.

Refeeding syndrome, as it’s known, is clinically significant in perhaps 6% of patients. The risk goes up if they are below 70% of their ideal body weight; have a prolonged QTc interval; or begin treatment with low phosphorous, magnesium, or potassium.

Dr. Maggie Hall, Moses H. Cone memorial hospital, greensboro, NC M. Alexander Otto/MDedge News

Dr. Maggie S. Hall

To counter the threat, electrolytes are measured twice a day at Moses H. Cone during the first week of treatment, and ECGs are taken daily for the first few days. “One thing to be really careful about is when you notice their heart rate beginning to creep up during rest. That can be a sign of developing cardiomyopathy; it’s an indication for us to get echocardiograms,” Dr. Hall said.

The Moses H. Cone team like to include families in meal times – it’s been shown to help – but family members need to be coached beforehand. They can’t be punitive. Mealtime talk has to be positive, and can’t focus on eating. Parents often need help handling their own anger and guilt before trying to eat with their child. Progress has to be monitored, but Dr. Nagappan cautioned that “you have to be really careful about how you get weights”; it should always be in the morning after the first void. Urine needs to be checked to make sure patients aren’t water loading.

Staff should be neutral about weight results, and keep them to themselves. Even something as benign as “good job” can be a problem. “You don’t want these patients focused on their weight. You want them focused on getting better and eating and taking it step by step,” he said.

The presenters had no disclosures to report.

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