Almost a fifth of hospitals in England and Wales are not halting work at mealtimes to help patients eat, five years after the launch of NHS Estates’ protected mealtimes initiative.

Figures provided by the Department of Health to a parliamentary question reveal that only around two thirds of hospitals protect all mealtimes for patients, when all non-emergency clinical work stops. Around 13 per cent protected some mealtimes.

The scheme was launched in conjunction with the Royal College of Nursing as part of the better hospital food programme in 2004, to allow patients to eat their meals without interruption, and to focus attention on patients who need help to eat.

A National Patient Safety Agency review of the scheme two years ago found that 29 of the 60 trusts it surveyed did not operate protected mealtimes on any wards.

The figures for all hospitals, which are for 2007-08, show a mixed picture, with some trusts providing protected mealtimes at breakfast, lunch, and dinner in all wards, while others provide none.

Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals foundation trust has no protected mealtimes at any of its five hospitals, Imperial College Healthcare trust has no protected mealtimes at three of its four hospitals, and Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals trust has only patchy provision at two of its hospitals.

Patienty safety

RCN head of policy Howard Catton urged trusts to make protected mealtimes a priority.

“It’s clearly a patient safety issue, with malnutrition a problem at the extreme end, but there’s also an economic case for prioritising protected mealtimes, with properly nourished patients less likely to need long hospital bed stays or need follow up treatment after they have been discharged,” he said.

“When the idea was first put forward a lot of people suggested that stopping work on hospital wards while patients ate would not be possible, but if almost 70 per cent of hospitals can do it, then there’s no reason why everyone can’t.”

A spokeswoman for Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals foundation trust said it had operated protected mealtimes “although possibly not consistently”. It is starting a project that will include protected mealtimes.

An Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals trust spokeswoman said the trust was now protecting all mealtimes.