A recent intercalating student of mine got in touch with this query the other day:
Total parenteral nutrition is given as a replacement for nutrition where the patient cannot or should not be digesting food: it is given intravenously so bypasses digestion. Two patients have asked my current educational supervisor if the TPN solution is halal, and no-one, including the manufacturers, seems to know. There are various parts that are derived from animals but the manufacturers can’t say where from, even which animal seemingly.
The two relevant patients have been told the ‘don’t know’ answer and have agreed to continue taking the TPN but the team is now left wondering whether to tell all patients before they commence TPN that they do not know the origin of the products used and therefore the TPN cannot be guaranteed as halal, or indeed kosher either.
A pharmacist has also pointed out that beef gelatine is also used in many tablet coatings and this is generally never discussed with patients.
There is a suggestion in this paper that we should routinely be telling all patients about gelatine in tablets and IV infusions, which is definitely what my instinctual reaction agrees with. The authors suggest that continuing not to do so would mean modern medicine “might be thought to be following the sort of self certain, paternalistic line that doctors were accused of decades ago in relation to Jehovah’s Witnesses”. I think that sums it up quite nicely!
Another interesting question comes from a legal point of view – of the regulations surrounding labelling of food products, which I think are increasingly strict, and the information provided by manufacturers about origins of medical products and then how much of that is communicated to patients. (I think Margot Brazier might have mentioned this issue in our regulations seminar.)
Having chatted with the student in the pub since, we agree that, ethically at least, it’s a bit of a no-brainer: since it isn’t an imposition on anyone to warn that we can’t be sure of the origin of the treatment, there’s no harm in doing so – and, for the sake of preserving patients’ control over what goes into their bodies, we ought.
The legal question is potentially quite interesting here. Going off on one a bit, could there be a negligence issue here – on the grounds that it’s reasonable to suppose that at least some patients might want to know the information, even if they don’t expressly say they would (because it never crosses their mind)? Not to warn could be a serious omission here – and I’m wondering whether it might make a difference to consent. I genuinely don’t know: were someone to make a case that they should have been warned and would not have consented had they known, would there be legal mileage in it?
Any thoughts, anyone?