Nutrition assistant giving patients food for thought

Fruit smoothies: Nutrition assistant Gillian Armstrong with the fruit smoothies for patients at the Whalton Unit during Nutrition and Hydration Week.
Fruit smoothies: Nutrition assistant Gillian Armstrong with the fruit smoothies for patients at the Whalton Unit during Nutrition and Hydration Week.

Welcome to April’s matron column, bringing you up to date with developments in the NHS here in Morpeth.

This month we’re focusing on work taking place at the Whalton Unit, which is our specialist ward for the care and rehabilitation of older people.

The programme we are undertaking aims to improve the nutrition and hydration of our patients.

I cannot underestimate the importance of nutrition and hydration for our patients, particularly those who are frail, elderly and have complex health needs.

Good nutrition is vital to a patient’s recovery. It has a positive impact on their health and wellbeing, and, quite simply, helps them to get better quicker.

Across our trust there is a lot of excellent work taking place around this and we’re investing to ensure that every elderly care ward has a member of the team whose role is dedicated to improving patients’ nutrition.

A few years ago we piloted the use of nutrition assistants on two of our wards at North Tyneside General Hospital and it was a great success.

It increased the likelihood of patients gaining weight during their hospital stay, which aids their recovery and helps to reduce the length of time patients need to stay in hospital.

In addition, the tea parties and themed events involving snacks which the nutrition assistants organised helped to improve patients’ experiences of being in hospital.

They had a positive impact on their wellbeing and increased social interaction.

Here at the Whalton Unit, our nutrition assistant Gillian Armstrong has been with us for 18 months and the role is really benefitting our patients.

Gillian has a life-long interest in food and used to run a restaurant.

Her job with the trust involves doing all she can to encourage patients to eat and assisting those who find it difficult to eat on their own.

She also helps patients to order their food and talks to them, and in many cases their relatives, to find out their food likes and dislikes to increase the likelihood of them eating the meals they have ordered.

Gillian also liaises closely with the catering team to prepare tailored meals for patients with special requests and dietary requirements.

She works alongside the nursing staff, keeping them up to date with patients’ progress, and she flags up concerns if a patient isn’t eating or is having other difficulties.

With Gillian’s sole focus on patients’ nutrition, it enables the nursing staff to concentrate their efforts on patients’ care.

The social side of food is also a large part of the nutrition assistant role, with Gillian encouraging people to eat meals in the day room with fellow patients.

Unlike community hospitals at Alnwick, Berwick and Blyth, where the patients are cared for in traditional wards, we have single, en-suite rooms at the Whalton Unit.

This improves patients’ privacy and dignity, however it can increase social isolation for some of the patients.

To help patients to interact with each other outside meal times, Gillian ensures that snacks are made available.

She also organises tea parties and events to mark special occasions, which helps to promote social eating.

One such special occasion was during the Nutrition and Hydration Week, which was held last month.

This national awareness week to highlight, promote and celebrate improvements in the provision of nutrition and hydration, was marked across our trust with a series of events.

At the Whalton Unit, Gillian made afternoon teas with cream scones and cakes, which, as you can imagine, went down very well with patients.

We also invested in a blender for our ward to show patients how to make smoothies as an alternative option to eating fruit.

This is great for those patients who feel daunted or put off by eating a piece of fruit and for those who find it difficult to chew. However, it still ensures that they take in all of the nutritional benefits of fruit and helps towards their ‘five a day’.

We put these smoothies into fancy glasses and even had a parasol — our own variation on mocktails.

We also held a couple of coffee mornings where patients had the option of having a strawberry dipped in chocolate with their cup of tea or coffee. This was another opportunity for patients to increase their fruit uptake, as well as socialising.

These events were such a success and really helped our patients to come together so we will be running them again.

Having a nutrition assistant whose role is dedicated purely to nutrition is making a big difference to patients on our ward and Gillian is a great asset to the team.

Gillian also finds the role really rewarding. This is what she has to say.

“It gives me a great amount of satisfaction to see a patient who wasn’t interested in eating at the beginning of their stay with us change their outlook to food with our encouragement and support,” she said.

“We’ve had patients who have gone from barely touching what was on their plate to eating three-course meals, and, above all, really enjoying their food.

“While that doesn’t happen for every one of our patients, to see them show an interest in food, eat more than they did and have greater interaction with fellow patients is what it’s all about.

“And to hear the positive feedback from them and their relatives when this is the case is truly fantastic.”

This weekend we’re going to be serving up some Easter-themed food at the Whalton Unit, which will be great for the patients.

That just leaves me to remind you all to use services wisely this bank holiday weekend and leave our Northumbria Emergency Care Hospital for those who are seriously ill or injured.

While your GP practice may be closed, the NHS has been working to ensure that people across the region who have non-emergency health issues will be able to access a GP appointment should they need one throughout the Easter weekend.

People should simply ring NHS 111 free to make an appointment.

There are also pharmacies open throughout the bank holiday weekend should you need medical advice quickly and it is not an emergency.

The pharmacists can give instant, confidential advice and treatment for minor illnesses and ailments, without the need to make an appointment.

For a full list of which pharmacies are open this weekend, please visit the website

Finally, I wish a Happy Easter to you all.