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58% of older hospital patients have problems eating and 31% leave most of their meal

Older patients need greater support, fewer interruptions and more sensitive care at mealtimes, according to research published in the October issue of the UK-based Journal of Clinical Nursing.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide, Australia, spent two weeks studying 48 hospital patients and 50 nurses during mealtimes on two medical wards.

They discovered that 58 per cent of the patients, who were aged 65 or over, had problems eating. Just under a third (31 per cent) left more than two-thirds of their meal and only 15 per cent had eaten it all.

More than half of the patients they studied (55 per cent) had problems opening food and about a third found it difficult to use cutlery (36 per cent) and add seasoning (32 per cent).

More than a fifth (23 per cent) were too far away from their food and 18 per cent said their eating position was uncomfortable or they had problems pouring drinks.

Although nurses were good at describing the food and encouraging patients to eat it, practical support was only given to a small percentage of patients. For example only six percent were made more comfortable or helped with cutlery.

Interruptions were also frequent. One in five patients (19 per cent) had a doctor’s visit during mealtimes and more than half (51 per cent) had mealtimes interrupted by other staff, mostly nurses (92 per cent).

Three patients were asked about their bowels while they were eating and four male patients had urine bottles place on the table beside meals.

“Recent research suggests that 40 per cent of older people are malnourished when they are admitted to hospital” says lead researcher Chenfan Xia, who was based at the University at the time of the study - with co-author Professor Helen McCutcheon - and now works in an aged care facility.

“The nutritional status of 60 per cent of all older patients will deteriorate further while they are in hospital, with those who were malnourished in the first place suffering worst. And insufficient food is regarded as a major cause of the problem.

“This is an important issue, especially with a growing elderly population, because poor nutrition and malnourishment is linked to poor health, slow recovery and longer hospital stays.

“However most of the research to date has been carried out in care homes, so little is known about the situation on hospital wards.”

The researchers make a number or recommendations:

•Nutrition should be given a higher priority in ward routines and staff training.

•Food intake needs to be monitored in the same way as urine output and drugs. The study found that monitoring was very patchy and often only covered fluid intake.

•Many patients were put off by large portion sizes and the researchers suggest that serving smaller portions at more regular intervals or providing nutritious drinks between meals are two possible solutions.

•Staff often took their meal breaks at the same time as the patients and these should be rescheduled to enable them to provide more help.

•Interruptions such as doctors’ visits should be discouraged during mealtimes and staff should be more sensitive about discussing or highlighting issues such as toileting during meal times.

Lack of support for older patients during mealtimes was also highlighted by a recent Age Concern survey carried out in the UK. The charity found that nine out of ten nurses don’t always have time to help patients who need help with eating and has launched a campaign – Hungry to be Heard – to tackle the issue in UK hospitals.

Annette Whibley | alfa
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