A qualitative study into the impact of fasting within a large tertiary hospital in Australia--the patients' perspective

J Clin Nurs. 2015 Jul;24(13-14):1946-54. doi: 10.1111/jocn.12847. Epub 2015 May 11.


Aims and objectives: This qualitative study aims to explore the physical and emotional impact of fasting from the patients' perspective.

Background: Fasting patients in hospital is common practice and generally viewed as necessary for symptom management or for safety of healthcare provision. Negative impacts of repeated or prolonged fasting on nutritional status have been well researched, but little is documented as to how fasting impacts an individual patient's psyche.

Design: Qualitative descriptive design within a tertiary hospital in Sydney, Australia.

Methods: Twelve patients having had prolonged periods of continuous or intermittent fasting were invited to participate in a semi-structured interview between January-September 2012. Questions for interview explored each patient's experience of fasting, including physical and emotional impacts, interpretation of communication regarding fasting and the process of recommencing on fluids or foods. An inductive thematic analysis approach was used.

Results: Analyses showed six main themes: physical impacts; emotional impacts; food as structure; nil by mouth as jargon; fear of food re-introduction; and dissatisfaction regarding unnecessary fasting. Overwhelmingly, thirst was reported as the worst physical effect of fasting. In the first few days of fasting, patients became emotionally fixated on food. This quickly dissipated leading to a lack of appetite and fear of starting to eat again.

Conclusions: Discomfort experienced by patients coupled with lack of appetite resulting from prolonged fasting and difficulty with food re-introduction strengthens the argument for reducing fasting times in hospital. When patients are fasted, proper hydration and establishing alternate routes of medication administration should be a priority.

Relevance to clinical practice: It is well recognised that fasting for prolonged periods is detrimental to health outcomes, but this study also shows the distress that fasting can cause. Inadequate hospital systems and out-dated practices need to be replaced with evidence-based, patient-centred governance, addressing the physical, emotional and psychosocial impact of fasting.

Keywords: fasting; nil by mouth; patient-centred care; qualitative research.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Australia
  • Communication
  • Fasting / psychology*
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Qualitative Research
  • Tertiary Care Centers