Protein energy malnutrition in hospitalized patients is very common. Many studies have demonstrated that the prevalence runs between 30% and 60%, depending on the patient population studied and the assessment tools used. Hospital malnutrition, independent of disease activity, has been linked to increased length of stay and heightened morbidity and mortality. It is disturbing to think that many patients are actually worse off at time of dismissal than they were at admission. Malnutrition often goes unrecognized and even when the problem is acknowledged adequate nutrition is often not provided. Patients are commonly permitted to subsist on very low nutrient intakes.3 The problem of malnutrition is likely grossly underestimated because most studies have not considered micronutrients such as trace elements and vitamins. In addition, the presence of subclinical, yet clinically important, deficiency is expected to be highly prevalent.
Early screening improves the recognition of malnourished patients and provides the opportunity to start treatment at an early stage of hospitalization. Nutritional therapy as part of a comprehensive treatment modality may result in improvement of healthcare quality. In some countries it is also a criterion for assessing the performance of hospitals. In the U.S., for example, nutritional screening in hospitals is required for accreditation by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations and is part of the Minimal Data Set documentation in long-term care facilities.
In most institutions, nutritional screening refers to a rapid and general test that is undertaken by nursing, medical, and other staff, often at first contact with patients. This is in contrast to the detailed nutritional evaluation that is undertaken by nutrition specialists (e.g., dietitians, specialist nutrition nurses, or physicians with an interest in nutrition), often for complex problems and often following nutritional screening. The introduction of a nutrition screening program and documentation of nutritional status may also increase diagnosis-related group (DRG)-based reimbursement.
Unfortunately, a lack of standardized sensitive and specific methodologies to assess for macro- or micronutrient deficiencies makes it difficult to determine how best to screen patients. Recent literature suggests, however, that the use of a short nutrition questionnaire and an undemanding treatment plan improved nutritional care during a hospital stay.4 The use of this strategy reduced the duration of the hospital stay in a subgroup of frail malnourished patients, offering potential improvements in morbidity as well as financial benefits for the hospital.
The lessons of past discoveries should not be lost on modern medicine. Malnutrition can be made a condition of the past through the use of simple screening procedures and uncomplicated treatments. The results will benefit both patients and hospitals. TH
Michelle Schneider is a medical student at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland. Dr. Egger is a senior associate consultant at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.
- Hung SC, Hung SH, Tarng DC, et al. Thiamine deficiency and unexplained encephalopathy in hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis patients. Am J Kidney Dis. 2001;38:941-947.
- Hanninen SA, Darling PB, Sole MJ, et al. The prevalence of thiamin deficiency in hospitalized patients with congestive heart failure. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2006 Jan 17;47(2):354-361.
- Sullivan DH, Sun S, Walls RC. Protein-energy undernutrition among elderly hospitalized patients: a prospective study. JAMA. 1999 Jun;281(21):2013-2019.
- Kruizenga HM, Van Tulder MW, Seidell JC, et al. Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of early screening and treatment of malnourished patients. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;82(5):1082-1089.