Elderly people are being left to go hungry on NHS wards, a report has claimed.

Those who enter hospital malnourished can get worse during their stay or become malnourished under the care of NHS staff.

The report from the charity Age UK found almost one in three nurses believe their own relative could enter hospital with nobody noticing they were malnourished.

The study - Still Hungry To Be Heard - builds on previous research which showed some elderly people receive no assistance with meals despite struggling to eat.

It found fewer than half of hospitals screen older patients for malnutrition on admission to hospital and only a third screen patients during their stay.

Just 5% screen on discharge, despite evidence showing good nutrition both in and out of hospital helps people get better.

The report found many hospitals are largely ignoring guidelines which say people should be screened.

The accompanying survey of 1,000 nurses found fewer than half thought their workplace screens older patients often enough. According to 71% of nurses this is due to a lack of time, other priorities and training.

Figures for 2008/09 showed almost 180,000 patients left hospital malnourished, a number that has been rising, and 239 died of malnutrition during their stay in 2007.

Malnutrition is thought to cost the NHS £7.3 billion per year, affecting 23% of people under 65, increasing to 32% among the over-65s.

Age UK’s Hungry To Be Heard campaign was launched in 2006 and the charity said it has seen improvements since then.

Michelle Mitchell, charity director at Age UK, said: “The Government must introduce compulsory monitoring so that this issue can be effectively tackled.

“Age UK is also calling for the CQC to undertake a comprehensive review of hospital mealtimes. This way, hospitals not taking steps to effectively stop malnutrition will be exposed.”

Dr Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said compulsory screening for malnutrition would tackle the inconsistency between hospitals.

“In order to achieve this, it is crucial that all the appropriate screening equipment and training is provided for health and social care workers to make nutrition a priority in their workplace.

“It is vital that hospital staff are able to focus solely at mealtimes on serving the nutritional needs of patients and allowing them to eat in as conducive an atmosphere as possible.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “All patients should be individually assessed when admitted to hospital and they should be provided with nutritious, properly prepared food at times that are appropriate to their individual needs.”