Nutritional Intervention Can Improve Hospital Patients' Outcome, Reduce Costs


Dr. Tappenden

Three Steps to Better Nutrition

Hospitalists should consider these steps to improve patient nutritional care:

1. Recognize malnourished patients and those at risk for malnutrition:

  • Screen all patients for malnutrition promptly.
  • Use an accepted, validated screening tool.

2. Implement comprehensive nutritional interventions:

  • Take a multidisciplinary approach that includes dietitians, nurses, and family members.
  • Rescreen throughout hospital stay to monitor progress.

3. Develop a comprehensive discharge nutritional plan:

  • Make nutrition part of conversations with patients, family members, and caregivers.
  • Reinforce the importance of nutrition as part of care at home.

Health-care reform is on everyone’s mind these days, and SHM, along with numerous other groups, believes some reform goals can be achieved through the stomach.

Data show an effective program of nutritional intervention during a patient’s hospital stay can go a long way toward improving patient outcomes and reducing costs.1 Hospitalists, however, often have little formal nutrition training. A multidisciplinary approach to patient nutrition that brings together multiple stakeholders—hospitalists, nurses, and dietitians—might effectively address this need with a team tactic, according to Melissa Parkhurst, MD, medical director of the hospital medicine section at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City.1

Between 20% and 50% of inpatients suffer from malnutrition.2 Many patients, especially the elderly, are malnourished on admission. Many more become malnourished within a few days of their hospital stay due to NPO orders and the effects of disease on metabolism.2 Malnutrition has been associated with worsened discharge status, longer length of stay, higher costs, and greater mortality, as well as increased risk of:2

  • Nosocomial infections;
  • Falls;
  • Pressure ulcers; and
  • 30-day readmissions.

Dr. Tappenden

To address malnutrition prevalence and its detrimental effects, SHM and the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN), the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN), and Abbott Nutrition have formed the Alliance for Patient Nutrition. Kelly Tappenden, MD, PhD, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana, says the alliance aims to raise awareness of the impact nutrition can have on patient outcomes (see “Three Steps to Better Nutrition,” below).

The campaign is being initiated with the publication of a consensus paper in several peer-reviewed journals. A baseline survey will be conducted among professionals represented in the alliance to assess their familiarity with the prevalence of malnutrition in a hospital setting. The next step is to foster this change in patient care by providing resources on the alliance’s website (www.malnutrition.com), including malnutrition screening tools, a toolkit to facilitate multidisciplinary collaboration, and continuing medical education (CME) information.

Dr. Parkhurst

As a founding member of the alliance, SHM is communicating this message to its members, encouraging hospitalists to lead the way in transforming hospital culture to recognize the critical role nutrition plays in patient care.

“Nutrition matters,” Dr. Parkhurst says. “You can be winning the battle and losing the war if you are not paying attention to patient nutrition.”

Team Approach

Dr. Quatrara

Beth Quatrara, DNP, RN, director of the nursing research program at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville and nursing spokesperson for the alliance, says several shortcomings can be identified in the nutritional care U.S. hospitals provide from admission through discharge and beyond. For example, the Joint Commission requires that all patients be screened for malnutrition risk within 48 hours of admission. But screening is often as cursory as looking at the patient and deciding that he or she “looks fine.” Diets often are set for patients with no thought to taste, texture, or cultural preferences, or even to such practical matters as ascertaining whether the patient has dentures, Quatrara says. Meal trays are left when patients are out of their rooms for procedures and retrieved by dietary staff before patients return. And except for calorie count orders, accurate records often are not kept of actual food consumption.

The alliance, which is made possible with support from Abbott's nutrition business, recommends that physicians implement a three-step plan to improve patient outcomes. The approach begins with an evaluation of a patient’s nutritional status on admission using a simple, validated screening tool, such as the Malnutrition Screening Tool. When an at-risk status is determined, a more in-depth screening is performed. “When patients at risk for malnutrition can be identified faster, appropriate interventions can be put into place sooner,” Quatrara says.

The second step is nutrition intervention with a personalized nutritional care plan that takes into account the individual’s health conditions, caloric needs, physical limitations, tastes, and preferences. An interdisciplinary team approach can transform hospital nutrition, bringing together hospitalists, nurses, nursing assistants, registered dietitians, and the dietary staff to collaboratively develop a nutrition care plan that will be central to patient’s overall treatment, Dr. Tappenden says.

“There is a science behind nutrition and metabolic care,” Dr. Tappenden says. “Just like any other aspect of patient care, we can’t just throw out a blanket solution.”

But nutritional care cannot stop with developing this plan at the outset. Patients must be rescreened throughout their time at the hospital to measure any changes in nutritional status due to disease progression or treatment success.

For optimal impact, all members of the nutritional care team—nurses, nursing assistants, dietary support staff, and family members—should take responsibility for an essential component of the patient’s care: tracking and reporting consumption to the physician to open a dialogue about balancing an individual’s needs with tastes and preferences.

The hospitalist’s final step is developing a discharge plan that includes nutrition care and education so that patients, families, and caregivers can implement better nutrition at home.

“Nutrition makes sense,” Dr. Tappenden says. “Everything we are working toward in healthcare reform can be achieved by taking more care to make nutrition part of the solution.”

Maybelle Cowan-Lincoln is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

Studies Show Nutrition Matters

Malnutrition can adversely affect patient outcomes:

  • Malnourished patients are twice as likely to develop a pressure ulcer.6
  • Patients with malnutrition/weight loss have 2.5 times the risk for surgical-site infections (SSIs).7

Studies demonstrate nutritional intervention benefits inpatients:

  • Can help reduce readmissions by 28%.8
  • Helps reduce risk of falls in malnourished patients.9
  • Can reduce hospital LOS by an average of two days.3

Oral nutritional supplements can have a measurable, positive impact on patient nutrition:

  • Can achieve a 25% reduction in risk of developing a pressure ulcer.4
  • Can reduce major complications by 60% in elderly orthopedic patients.5


  1. Kirkland LL, Kashiwagi DT, Brantley S, Scheurer D, Varkey P. Nutrition in the hospitalized patient. J Hosp Med. 2013;8:52-58.
  2. Alliance for Patient Nutrition. Malnutrition Backgrounder.
  3. Banks M, Bauer J, Graves N, Ash S. Malnutrition and pressure ulcer risk in adults in Australian health care facilities. Clin Nutr. 2010;26:896-901.
  4. Fry DE, Pine M, Jones BL, Meimban RJ. Patient characteristics and the occurrence of never events. Arch Surg. 2010;145:148-151.
  5. Gariballa S, Forster S, Walters S, Powers H. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of nutritional supplementation during acute illness. Am J Med. 2006;119:693-699.
  6. Neelemaat F, Lips P, Bosmans J, Thijs A, Seidell JC, van Bokhorst-de van der Schuerer MA. Short-term oral nutritional intervention with protein and vitamin D decreases falls in malnourished older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2012;60:691-699.
  7. Brugler L, DiPrinzio MJ, Bernstein L. The five-year evolution of a malnutrition treatment program in a community hospital. J Qual Improv. 1999;25:191-206.
  8. Stratton PJ, et al. Enteral nutritional support in prevention and treatment of pressure ulcers: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ageing Res Rev. 2005;4:422-450.
  9. Lawson RM, Doshi MK, Barton JR, Cobden I. The effect of unselected post-operative nutritional supplementation on nutritional status and clinical outcomes of elderly orthopaedic patients. Clin Nutr. 2003;22:39-46.

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