Time to change a treatment paradigm?

September 23, 2015 By: Bjorn Rembacken

Time to change a treatment paradigm

Models of care and malnourished patients

In the past 10 years we have seen the expansion of a cadre of gastroenterologists who have a sub-specialty interest in nutrition. As a result, we have seen nutrition rightfully taking centre stage in our hospitals. Indeed, in the UK hospital mealtimes are now ‘protected’ and malnourished patients have their food served on red trays.

Our nutrition experts have more directly been involved in a transformation of the care of patients who have short bowels. This group of patients is a complex mix, in which every patient is different depending on how much small bowel is left, what type of anastomosis was constructed and the underlying disease. Such patients may suffer high morbidity and mortality because the malabsorption of macronutrients, micronutrients, electrolytes and water can result in impaired growth, premature aging, sudden hypotension, renal failure, arrhythmias, fits, infections, liver failure and impaired healing. The increased survival of these desperately ill patients has been achieved by meticulous attention to detail. A tiny shift in a patient’s serum magnesium level triggers an adjustment. As the 2003 AGA review put it: “Vitamin and mineral status should be monitored regularly, and supplementation should be customized for each patient.”1

Of course, it takes a particular type of meticulous doctor to tirelessly manage a patient’s micronutrient intake. I am not sure that I could manage to pay such careful daily attention to every patient’s zinc, copper, magnesium and selenium levels. Luckily, gastroenterologists with a specialist interest in nutrition are self-selected, thorough doctors and their patients with intestinal failure benefit greatly.

Most UK hospitals now have a nutrition team, which is headed up by a gastroenterologist with a specialist interest in nutrition. Initially these teams only cared for patients with intestinal failure. Subsequently their remit enlarged to include patients with malabsorption and more recently came to include all those who are malnourished.

The most severely malnourished patients in our hospitals are those with anorexia nervosa. The nutrition of these patients is now often looked after by gastroenterologists with an expertise in intestinal failure. Just as intestinal failure is at the sharp end of gastroenterology, anorexia nervosa is at the sharp end of psychiatry. Not only does the condition have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness,2 the management is complicated by a lack of reliably successful treatments. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has reviewed the therapies available and awarded only “grade C level evidence” for 74 of the 75 therapies for eating disorders.3

As we start to see severely malnourished patients who have eating disorders on our gastroenterology wards, it is becoming apparent that simply focusing on a patient’s nutritional needs does not work. Care may be reduced to a battle of wills in which patients pull out their feeding tubes as quickly as doctors put them back down. Furthermore, in spite of opiates, botox injections, naso-gastric feeding, venting PEGs, gastric pacemakers and parenteral nutrition, many patients remain just as debilitated.

Personally, I believe that the key to understanding why many patients with the most severe eating disorders do not seem to be greatly improved by pipes and pills is because we practise the “Medical Model” of care. This model focuses on ‘curing’ patients, whereby ‘cure’ is defined by the absence of symptoms and a return to normal, pre-morbid health.4 Of course, such a model is entirely appropriate for treating reflux oesophagitis, a peptic ulcer or an exacerbation of colitis. However, when managing patients who have functional bowel disease, alcohol addiction or eating disorders this model of care may be less helpful.

In all areas of psychiatry, the Medical Model of care is being superseded by the “Recovery Model”. Indeed, the Recovery Model of care has been integrated into public mental health policy in many countries, including Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Ireland and the UK.5 The Recovery Model emphasises the personal experience of recovery, involving hope, rebuilding connections with family, friends and supporting patients in rebuilding a fulfilling life in spite of ongoing illness. In contrast to the Medical Model, this model aims for ‘recovery’, defined as enabling a return of hope, personal responsibility, control and empowerment.6

Supporting patients with functional bowel disease, alcohol addiction and eating disorders on their journey towards recovery involves understanding their agenda, active listening, empathy and the setting of realistic goals in equal partnership with patients and their families. Unfortunately, this model of care is unfamiliar to many gastroenterologists, and perhaps particularly to those with a sub-speciality interest in intestinal failure. For this reason we may have to train a new cadre of gastroenterologists with particular expertise in functional disease. This new gastroenterological subspeciality would protect vulnerable patients against repeated cycles of inappropriate investigations and increasingly invasive interventions and instead focus on supporting them on a road towards recovery and a living a fulfilling life.



  1. Buchman AL, Scolapio J and Fryer J. AGA technical review on short bowel syndrome and intestinal transplantation. Gastroenterology 2003; 124: 1111–1134. 
  2. Beumont PJ and Touyz SW. What kind of illness is anorexia nervosa? European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2003; 12: i20–i24. 
  3. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Eating disorders. NICE clinical guideline 9. January 2004.
  4. Roberts G and Wolfson P. The rediscovery of recovery: open to all. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 2004; 10: 37–49.
  5. Andresen R, Oades LG and Caputi P. Psychological Recovery: Beyond Mental Illness. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell 2011 
  6. Schrank B and Slade M. Recovery in psychiatry. Psychiatric Bulletin 2007; 31: 321–325.




About the author

Bjorn Rembacken is at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Leeds, UK. He was born in Sweden and qualified from Leicester University in 1987. He undertook his postgraduate education in Leicester and in Leeds. His MD was dedicated to inflammatory bowel disease. Dr Rembacken was appointed Consultant Gastroenterologist, Honorary Lecturer at Leeds University and Endoscopy Training Lead in 2005. Follow Bjorn on Twitter @Bjorn_Rembacken



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