Hospitals should have 'protected mealtimes' to ensure patients eat properly, nurses say.
Only essential staff should be on wards at mealtimes, say nurses
A study found meals are often left out of patients' reach or near urine and vomit bowls.
Now, the 'protected meal' idea is being rolled out across the NHS so nurses can focus on ensuring patients eat properly.
The Royal College of Nursing's annual meeting in Harrogate heard the move was a "return to traditional values".
Caroline Lecko, a matron at King's College Hospital in London, told the conference her trust had carried out an audit at mealtimes and found there were as many as 25 extra people including staff and visitors on wards who did not need to be there.
Research has shown that 40% of patients going into hospital are already
malnourished and, of these, 70% will become more malnourished within a week of
Ms Lecko is currently taking a Department of Health roadshow around England to encourage more trusts to tackle busy lunchtimes.
She said: "We saw on the wards that they were extremely busy over the lunchtime period, so busy that the food really wasn't being noticed by nurses, by doctors, by
therapists and everybody was too busy to make sure that patients were actually
"We were seeing patients not really being prepared for meals and not being
made comfortable to eat, with food left out of reach.
"In some cases patients' meals were being left on tables next to bottles of
urine and vomit bowls. It was awful.
"Patients could be eating while someone next to them is having blood taken or
being prepared to sit on a commode."
She said staff were "absolutely horrified" by what they were seeing.
King's introduced new guidelines in February so that between 12 and 1pm,
unnecessary medical staff and visitors who are not helping with feeding are
asked not to be on wards.
Ms Lecko said this means nurses can concentrate on helping patients eat and other staff can have their own lunch.
Non-urgent medical tests are scheduled around mealtimes so patients are not
She said the initiative was about going back to "traditional values".
"It's not that this is a new idea. Florence Nightingale talks about the importance of meals and food and having patients eating in her diaries in 1857.
"It's about going back to real fundamentals and what is important and we all
know that if you don't eat you feel absolutely horrendous."
The Department of Health said more than 300 hospitals had already signed up to
the protected mealtimes scheme.
Health minister Lord Warner said: "The environment in which food is served
plays a big part in how much is eaten and people's perceptions about quality.
"When I launched the protected mealtimes initiative I made the point that it
only seeks to apply to hospital wards what we try to do in our own homes - make
mealtimes a time of pleasure.
"I am therefore delighted that so many hospitals are supporting the protected
mealtimes. I strongly commend the initiative and hope we will see it gaining support in
even more hospitals as soon as possible."