A few weeks ago the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Congress dominated the headlines as nurses overwhelmingly voted in favour of a motion of no confidence in Andrew Lansley. While NHS reform was the main topic of conversation at the 4 day Congress, it was not the only issue being discussed.
We attended the RCN congress to talk about a current problem in our hospitals – older patients becoming malnourished. The statistics show that the number of people entering and leaving hospital malnourished has steadily risen each year – in 2008-09 over 185,000 people left hospital malnourished.
The nurses we spoke to all agreed that this is a problem, but they disagreed over the cause. Many nurses believed that it is caused by the poor quality of food: “Have you seen the food they serve?” “The food looks like slop” are two comments we heard time and time again. Their proposed solution is straightforward – hospitals need to spend more on food so patients can have nutrient rich and appealing food.
While improving the quality of food will help, it will not fully solve the problem. Good quality food is important but hospitals also need to ensure that older people receive the help they need during mealtimes. What’s the point of having a five-star meal if no-one helps you to remove the packaging?
Older people regularly tell us they do not get the help they need at mealtimes – this help could be as simple as ensuring the food tray is placed within reach, to removing packaging as well as assistance with feeding. Without this support older patients go without food and often end up leaving hospital malnourished.
Nurses have told us that the biggest barrier to ensuring patients receive help is time – mealtimes are too short and there are simply not enough nurses to help everyone who requires support at mealtimes. There is no one solution to this; mealtimes could be staggered or extended, hospital volunteers could support patients during mealtimes or more nurses could be employed on wards.
What is clear is that immediate action is required to stop this scandal, otherwise the number of people leaving hospital malnourished will continue to rise.
Find out more about Age UK’s Hungry to be Heard campaign, fighting malnutrition in hospitals.