Litany of complaints over food service in hospitals
ELDERLY patients going without food for hours, dementia and stroke victims left to feed themselves and a coeliac given frozen gluten-free bread are just some of a litany of food and feeding complaints received by hospitals.
The shocking revelations, in a series of Freedom of Information requests by the Irish Independent, came as hospitals slashed over €9m from food service budgets in just two years.
The complaints include:
* Meals repeatedly left on beds and out of reach of infirm and elderly patients.
* A dementia sufferer left to feed himself.
* An 88-year-old patient unfed for 14 hours.
* An elderly stroke victim left to feed herself one-handed in a Dublin hospital.
* A diabetic forced to buy dinner in a hospital shop after he was offered sausages and beans.
But the true scale of patient anger remains unknown as some hospitals refused data on food and feeding complaints.
Nutritionists warned the high fat, high calorie food still offered in hospitals absolutely "beggars belief".
Dr Donal O'Shea, a consultant endocrinologist and nutrition expert based at St Columcille's Hospital in Dublin, said the HSE was working to improve the standards of food served to patients but said the rate of movement was "incredibly slow".
"Healthcare facilities need to become exemplars of how we should be eating," he told the Irish Independent last night.
"There is far too much high-fat, high-salt foods being served to patients in hospitals.
"There just simply shouldn't be chips served to patients at all."
University Hospital Galway (UHG) received the most complaints, 35 between January 1, 2011, and March 1, 2014.
One complainant called for a HSE investigation after her 88-year-old mother was unfed for a more than a day in March 2012.
"Not offering food during a period of 14 hours to a patient is beyond being acceptable ... way below the lowest standards required," the complaint states.
In another case, a diabetic was forced to buy his dinner in the hospital shop after he complained that his evening meal of beans and sausages was "inedible".
"While a ham sandwich was offered as alternative, he stated he does not eat ham. He subsequently went to hospital shop to buy his evening meal," hospital staff noted.
UHG apologised and said: "We engage with patients and carry out regular surveys in relation to catering.
"Where possible, any patient issues are dealt with proactively on the spot."
University Hospital Limerick (UHL) received seven complaints in the period investigated – three for cases where food had been left on the bed of elderly patients unable to feed themselves.
"We are not happy with the way Dad was treated in some respects. Staff did not know how to handle somebody with dementia, food was left on tray at end of bed," a family member complained.
UHL said every complaint was treated "with the utmost seriousness and we would encourage patients to let us know when things go wrong".
It noted the hospital only received seven complaints over a 40-month period as it treated more than 140,000 patients.
Cork University Hospital (CUH) received four complaints, one of which was from a coeliac sufferer given "frozen gluten-free bread".
Tallaght Hospital in Dublin received just one complaint which referred to "dark brown chips" served to a child patient and said there had been no supervision to ensure the child had eaten.
The Mater Hospital in Dublin received 22 complaints but the hospital refused to release copies of these, as did St Vincent's Hospital.
FF health spokesman Billy Kelleher said such incidents should not be tolerated.
"I know staff can be under extreme pressure on occasions but there is no excuse for these kinds of revelations," he said.
Irish Patients Association (IPA) official, Stephen McMahon, warned that it was "just the tip of the iceberg" given that the majority of Irish patients with a problem opt not to make a complaint.
"It is absolutely appalling to hear these details," he said.
"Food has to be seen as an integral part of medical treatment and not part of some hotel-type service."
He pointed to a 2009 Irish health report which found 11pc of patients were already undernourished on admission to hospital.
"This underlines how absolutely critical proper nutrition is within the healthcare system. How can a person get better if they are not being properly fed or assisted to eat," he said.
Inspections of hospitals are carried out by the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) but a spokesperson said there wasn't sufficient legislation in place to monitor food served to hospital patients.
"There are healthcare standards which include hygiene and dietary conditions but until licensing comes in we can't go into hospitals and do the kind of inspections we do in the disability sector or the older person sector," he said.
The complaints are revealed just days after a report was published by the Health Information Quality Authority (HIQA) which found that care home residents had to wait 15 hours for food.
The inspectors' visited the HSE-run Aras Attracta home in Swinford, Co Mayo, which cares for 97 adults with intellectual disabilities, after being contacted by whistleblowers.
On the inspection day, some residents were not offered any drink with their meal and food was cold while they observed one staff member assisting a resident in a very "undignified way".
Some residents who were underweight were prescribed supplements or high calorie diets but there was no evidence of these on their daily record sheets.
"Inspectors were so concerned about meals and the mealtime experience they requested the person in charge to observe," inspectors said.
"She described it as 'enlightening, difficult and distressing'."
A follow-up inspection in late May found the home had acted on recommendations and the residents' mealtimes had "improved significantly" with evidence of respect for their dignity and independence.