Food for thought

It may be strange to think of health care as anything beyond medication, doctors and hospitals, but according to some experts an apple can be as important as an antibiotic, depending on the ailment.

Chan Woo is the Manager of Hospitality Services for Covenant Health’s facilities in Trochu, Castor and Killam. He sees food as medicine, with nutrition as important as any other facet of patient care. “When a doctor examines the patient’s disease, they usually look at things like the immune and digestive systems,” Chan says. “All of these connect together. If the patient has proper nutrition, the immune system will be higher and their digestive system will function better.”

Trina Knievel, a Cook and Food Service Worker in Killam, Alta., is part of the team that works in the vast kitchen to prepare healthy and nutritious meals for patients and residents.

Food also presents a challenge for care providers: though people typically don’t question a doctor’s medical advice, everyone has an opinion about and different relationship with food.

Mary Jo Harland Gregoire, Covenant Health’s Corporate Manager for Clinical Nutrition Services, has experienced the unique challenges that nutrition in care facilities can present.

"Food is very personal," she says. "And everyone has their own preferences and their own way of preparing it."

“One of the challenges we face is that we’re not just feeding one individual, we’re feeding many who all have different preferences.”

Joan Hill, a Cook in Killam, Alta., helps to deliver the finished meals to patient and resident rooms.

When these challenges are met head-on, the results can be outstanding. Chan has seen first-hand the impact that proper nutrition can have. One resident was near the end of his life, but regardless of his prognosis Chan’s team provided the best nutrition they could. And it started to have an impact.

“After three months, he slowly regained some weight, about two pounds. He continued to gain more weight and moved from very underweight to underweight, then to a healthy weight. This resident is now able to function like any other!” And though the resident is still near end-of-life, he can be fully present during his time left.

But this isn’t always the case. According to a national study by the Canadian Malnutrition Task Force, 45 per cent of adults admitted to hospital who stay more than two days are malnourished and putting an extra strain on resources. Malnourished patients in medical beds stayed 53 per cent longer and had 55 per cent higher medical costs on average.

Sharon Meyer delivers a meal to Florence Breum, a resident at the Killam Health Centre. While many patients and residents may only meet Sharon, there’s a dedicated team working diligently to prepare the meals that are served.

The problem is also not specific to Canada. Andy Jones is an advocate and speaker from Britain who has been working within the National Health Service (NHS) system to get patients better access to more nutritious food. Andy not only works with food, but he has also struggled with his own health as a former chef who had battled anorexia for years.

He noticed that the system’s focus was on obesity, but malnutrition was a problem plaguing just as many patients and costing the NHS even more money.

“We’ve always known malnourishment’s there, and it’s a ticking time bomb,” says Andy.

Chan attributes malnourishment to a lack of education and understanding both in the system and in the general population. “Sometimes when I see malnourished patients, they’re eating, but they’re not eating the correct amounts of different kinds of food,” he says. “If they like beef, they’re just eating beef.”

Chan and his team use surveys to gauge how they are meeting the needs of their residents and patients.

“Those numbers are very helpful,” he says. “It feels good to see people enjoy the food that we serve them. It means the patient is more satisfied, and we feel like we’re doing the right thing and going down the right path.” 

The latest survey, conducted between April and September of 2016, saw Castor, Trochu and Killam score well in all categories, with an average satisfaction rating of 89.42 per cent in both acute and continuing care.

Dietitians throughout Covenant Health are also implementing program-specific nutrition screens and assessment tools to help identify individuals at risk. There are also several initiatives in place to combat malnutrition that go beyond the nutrition department and include departments such as nursing and volunteer services.

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