Throw caution to the wind: is refeeding syndrome really a cause of death in acute care?

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Refeeding syndrome (RFS), a life-threatening medical condition, is commonly associated with acute or chronic starvation. While the prevalence of patients at risk of RFS in hospital reportedly ranges from 0 to 80%, the prevalence and types of patients who die as a result of RFS is unknown. We aimed to measure the prevalence rate and examine the case histories of patients who passed away with RFS listed as a cause of death.


Patients were eligible for inclusion provided their death occurred within a Queensland hospital. Medical charts were reviewed, for medical, clinical and nutrition histories with results presented using descriptive statistics.


Across 18 years (1997-2015) and ˜ 260 000 hospital deaths, five individuals (4F, 74 (37-87)yrs) were identified. No patient had a past or present diagnosis, such as anorexia nervosa, that would classify them as at high risk for RFS. RFS was not listed as the primary cause of death for any patient. No individual consumed > 3400 kJ per day. Limited consensus was observed in the signs and symptoms used to diagnose RFS, although all patients experienced low levels of potassium, phosphate and/or magnesium. Eighty percent of electrolytes improved before death.


RFS was a rare underlying cause of death, despite reported high prevalence rates of risk. Patient groups usually considered to be at high risk were not identified, suggesting a level of imprecision with the interpretation of criteria used to identify RFS risk. More detailed research is warranted to assist in the identification of those distinctly at risk of RFS.

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