Hospital food failures continue

CBC’s Maritime Noon phone-in program for October 12th dealt with hospital food issues. The program’s guest was Heather Keller of the Canadian Malnutrition Task Force (CMTF).

This is the second program CBC has aired on this topic in two months. The previous program had chef Joshna Maharaj as a guest. I wrote about that here:

Keller’s message was that proper diet is key to good health. Who would argue with that? Well, the obvious answer is health care executives, who continue to fail to provide nutritious food for patients. The fact that we serve non-nutritious meals to patients and lack procedures to ensure that what is served to patients is actually physically accessible to patients falls on the executive. It is yet another of their myriad failures.

Some people have suggested that nurses, who have traditionally overseen this, are too busy to assist patients at mealtimes. Then that’s a staffing failure, which again is an executive decision.

Those of us who have had experience with Canada’s health care system know the problems with food. These problems are beyond taste. In 2012, CBC and other media made national headlines when they reported on studies that confirmed the lack of nutritional value in food served to Canadians in care. The nutritional value was so poor that anyone exposed to it for 30 days would most certainly become malnourished. How does anyone recover from any illness when they are in such a state? This flies in the face of what the CMTF and Canada Food Guide preach.

In the early 1990s, we had an elderly relative admitted to the VG in Halifax. Her daughter followed the ambulance in her car. By the time the daughter found a parking space and entered the hospital, staff had summoned security to arrest the adult daughter for elder abuse. They did this because the patient arrived at the VG with a broken collarbone, a broken hip and was severely malnourished. The problem for the VG, and by extension Capital Health, was that she was a transfer patient from the Hants Community Hospital in Windsor, where she had been in care for three months!

Almost 20 years later, in 2010, a young Valley banker told me how her grandmother had failed since entering hospital. She had lost skin elasticity, was always sleepy and uncommunicative. This patient was also at the Hants Community Hospital in Windsor. I suggested the family arrange to have someone at their grandmother’s bedside for mealtimes to make sure she was fed. They did and their grandmother recovered. It shouldn’t have to be like that.

In 2009, we had a family member in Valley Regional Hospital in Kentville. The patient was on an IV drip. Foolishly, I assumed that was how she was being fed. Only after 10 days did I learn that the IV wasn’t a food delivery system, it was merely for hydration. Hospital staff assumed I knew that. I didn’t. How many patient families do? It was only when I asked how and when they were feeding the patient, did I learn she wasn’t being fed! I was outraged. To appease me, one of the doctors told me that the human body can go 30 days without food. Basically, they were prepared to let a patient starve to death while in care. This attitude does not instill confidence in our system.

Then there are the hopelessly poor internal hospital communications. I was a patient at the Infirmary in Halifax. The head dietician came to speak to me about her challenges with planning my diet since I couldn’t swallow. The inability to swallow was news to me. As she told me this, an RN stood by my side, handing me pills and water to swallow.

I have RNs contact me to complain about the lack of feeding assistance available to patients in hospitals across Nova Scotia. How and why is this such a difficult concept for health care executives to manage? Good nutrition in a hospital should be as basic a concept as hygiene. So why can’t executives deliver it?

No one needs to study anything, we know the problem and we know the solution. The outrage is that this continues to be news. If health care executives can’t provide nutritious meals, why should we trust them to deliver on any other aspect of care? Such a basic failure should result in changes at the top. That would be in the best interests of the patients.

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2 Responses to Hospital food failures continue

  1. Mary McDaid says:

    The worst possible thing that could happen to your senior family member is hospitalization. We know first hand there is no one available to feed or bathe elderly or incapacitated patients. Even simple caregiving tasks such as toothbrushing must be undertaken by family members. One should never assume your loved one is being fed while in hospital care. As noted in your article, assistance in feeding patients is largely unavailable, ostensibly due to cutbacks. Truly it appears possible a patient who is unable to feed themselves could conceivably starve unless they have someone aware of and caring for their needs. We experienced all of this when our Mom was ill and in the Valley Regional a few years ago. Indeed, we had to tell the staff we felt she was dehydrated, and their first question to us was “how much is she drinking?” We were hoping someone responsible for her care would have been aware of her fluid intake. It was quite an eye opener.

    In a society where the numbers of elderly are increasing rapidly year over year, how will we ever address the growing needs of the future?

    • It is so disappointing that something as basic as food quality and personal care for patients isn’t better handled by our health care system. Of all the complicated issues in delivery of care, this is about the simplest element. Perhaps because it’s so simple, so basic it isn’t a priority. Because in several decades it hasn’t gotten better.

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