With a friend admitted to hospital following a stroke, Noel Plumridge is tracking the quality of care he receives. This week he asks whether he should be concerned about the health of staff on the ward

We’ve been watching the stroke ward staff who care for S for a fortnight now, and there’s an uncomfortable observation to be made. Not all the staff appear to maintain a healthy body weight. Some, to be blunt, are obese.

One of the nursing assistants struggles to manoeuvre equipment into position around their patients. At least one sturdy nurse could be charitably described as “fair and fat and 40”, “pleasantly plump”, or one of the many traditional euphemisms. Two of the doctors − including a consultant − are grossly overweight.

To be fat, of course, is no crime. In all probability the hospital staff merely mirror the local population, many of whom, judging from visiting times, have an unhealthily low centre of gravity.

But here, on a stroke ward, obesity communicates odd messages.

‘How convincing is lifestyle advice given by a visibly unhealthy physician?’

There’s that stereotypical association of fatness with laziness. The staff on the ward seem busy, all the time, yet little appears to run to schedule (except meal times: they’re always punctual). This may not be their fault, but the fact that they look like a team built for comfort rather than speed prompts the unkind thought.   

Another signal is that hospital staff don’t take care of themselves, and, perhaps more worryingly, that hospital management doesn’t see their well-being as a problem. It prompts dispiriting negatives about organisational style and culture, just as surely as the unstaffed reception desk just inside the main entrance tells a tale about values.

Should we expect health care staff to be role models, to live the lifestyle they encourage their patients to adopt? Is there a point where body mass interferes with one’s ability to do one’s job? That nursing assistant could certainly be more efficient, but the real difficulty is this. How convincing is lifestyle advice given by a visibly unhealthy physician?

Noel Plumridge is an independent consultant and former NHS finance director, noelplumridge@aol.com

Reflections on care on the stroke ward