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Appetising research - How we're Introducing Volunteer Mealtime Assistants for older inpatients across University Hospital Southampton

3 March 2015

Poor nutrition in hospital inpatients is a problem that is becoming increasingly recognised both in the UK and worldwide, and requires a multifaceted approach, including protected meal times, red trays and protein and energy supplementation as required. One factor that particularly affects older inpatients is the amount of assistance they receive at mealtimes. Time-pressured nursing staff may not have the time they need to help patients with their meals.

In 2011, volunteers were recruited and trained to act as mealtime assistants at lunchtimes on one Medicine for Older People ward at University Hospital Southampton. They helped prepare patients for their meal, opened food packaging, encouraged and physically fed patients as needed.

Over the course of one year, 29 volunteers assisted inpatients on 3,911 occasions, and the mealtime assistants were highly valued by patients, relatives and nursing staff. Volunteers have continued to work on the ward and are well established members of the team.

Voluntary Mealtime Assistants were introduced initially in 2011
Voluntary Mealtime Assistants were introduced initially in 2011

As part of the Ageing and dementia theme of the NIHR Wessex CLAHRC (Collaboration for leadership in applied health research and care) we are building on this in a new study to evaluate the implementation of mealtime assistants in five different hospital departments (Medicine for Older People, the Acute Medical Unit, Adult Medicine, Trauma & Orthopaedics and Surgery). The study will focus on patients over the age of 70 years on these wards.

We will be assessing how practical it is to recruit, train and retain mealtime assistants on such a large scale, as well as assessing how patients, relatives and staff feel about them. We will be interviewing patients and relatives, nursing staff and volunteers to capture their experiences of mealtime assistance. We will also be recording food choice and measuring the amount of food patients eat before and after the introduction of the mealtime assistants in each department.

At the end of the study, we hope to be able to describe the process of successfully establishing a team of mealtime assistants in these different departments as a blueprint for other hospitals.

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Dr Helen Roberts is Associate Professor in Geriatric Medicine and Theme 2 lead for Improving Routine Care for Ageing and Dementia for NIHR CLAHRC Wessex


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