Malnutrition is unfortunately a common problem, particularly in those aged over 65, and is thought to affect over three million people in the UK at a cost of nearly £20 billion (Elia, 2015). In light of this, it is crucial that it can be easily detected within vulnerable groups, so that the devastating downstream consequences can be prevented.
Unfortunately, Covid-19 has made this all the more challenging. I know, from my personal experiences of remote dietetic placement working in the NHS, that one of the hardest things to find out via an online or telephone consultation is accurate height or weight information from the person on the other end of the line. This is not only pivotal for the majority of dietetic care, but also to the Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool (MUST), which can be used by any healthcare professional to determine someone’s risk of malnutrition (BAPEN, 2018b).
Current policy focusing on older adults, the people most vulnerable to malnutrition, tends to focus on strategies to promote ‘healthy ageing’, enabling wellbeing into later life (Age UK, 2011; WHO, 2012). There is, however, a lack of policy addressing malnutrition, specifically for those living in the community. Guidelines from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommend screening for those within care homes and inpatient settings (NICE, 2012).
I feel that if more effort was put into community screening and early intervention, there would be fewer people admitted to hospital as a result of malnutrition, and therefore this is where public health efforts should be focused.
Whilst it may feel that Covid-19 is all anyone can talk about right now; I think we need to consider the impact it may be having on levels of malnutrition. Before the pandemic hit, there were already vulnerable people within the community who may have struggled to get out and about to do their shopping and care for themselves. The threat of a potentially deadly infection, for many, has driven them further indoors and into isolation. Alongside the direct effects of reduced access to food, due to venturing out less frequently and people ‘stockpiling’, there are also the psychological effects of the pandemic to consider. I know at times I have found lockdown challenging, so I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for those living alone and feeling extremely isolated and vulnerable. Alongside issues of digital poverty too. Another point to consider is that these individuals may be less inclined to visit their GP or be seen by other healthcare professionals at these times, meaning that malnutrition is less likely than ever to be picked up.
|The Patients Association Nutrition Checklist|
Whatever the approach, this is something I feel is underrepresented in the media and requires more public health attention in light of the pandemic. While I make sure to keep an eye on those around me who may be vulnerable to malnutrition, not everyone has that support network to fall back on and as a society, we ought to do more.
- Age UK (2011) Healthy Ageing Evidence Review. Available from: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/health--wellbeing/rb_april11_evidence_review_healthy_ageing.pdf (Accessed 3 August 2020)
- British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (2018a) Introduction to Malnutrition. Available from: https://www.bapen.org.uk/malnutrition-undernutrition/introduction-to-malnutrition (Accessed 1 December 2020)
- British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (2018b) BAPEN Malnutrition Self-Screening Tool. Available from: https://www.bapen.org.uk/screening-and-must/malnutrition-self-screening-tool (Accessed 30 November 2020)
- Elia, M. (2003) The ‘MUST’ report. Nutritional screening for adults: a multidisciplinary responsibility. Development and use of the ‘Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool’ (‘MUST’) for adults. Available from: https://www.bapen.org.uk/pdfs/must/must-report.pdf (Accessed 30 November 2020)
- National Institute for Clinical Excellence (2012) Nutrition support for adults: oral nutrition support, enteral tube feeding and parenteral nutrition. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg32 (Accessed 4 August 2020)
- Peek, N., Sujan, M. and Scott, P. (2020) ‘Digital health and care in pandemic times: impact of COVID-19’, BMJ Health Care Inform, 27: e100166 Available from: https://informatics.bmj.com/content/bmjhci/27/1/e100166.full.pdf
- Public Health England (2017) Impact assessment: Helping older people maintain a healthy diet: A review of what works. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/helping-older-people-maintain-a-healthy-diet-a-review-of-what-works/helping-older-people-maintain-a-healthy-diet-a-review-of-what-works (Accessed 1 December 2020)
- World Health Organisation (2012) Policies and priority interventions for healthy ageing. Available from: https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/Life-stages/healthy-ageing/publications/2012/policies-and-priority-interventions-for-healthy-ageing (Accessed 3 August 2020)