Volunteers brought in to feed NHS patients

Gladys Johnson
Gladys Johnson
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VOLUNTEERS are being brought in to help feed patients in Lothian hospitals, five years after a pensioner who came up with the idea won a battle with health bosses to help them herself.

Gladys Johnson noticed that patients were often not eating their food and were going without assistance with meals when she visited her husband George at the Royal Infirmary in 2005.

Gladys Johnson's husband George

Gladys Johnson's husband George

As a result of the inadequacies around mealtimes, which have also been highlighted in critical reports following inspections of the ERI, she volunteered to help patients with their lunches following Mr Johnson’s death around two years later, just hours before his 77th birthday.

It took reluctant hospital bosses eight months to agree to let Mrs Johnson volunteer to help patients eat, following discussions with unions and at health committees, and the 76-year-old has given her time twice a week ever since.

But half a decade later, a pilot project which has seen another 24 volunteers brought in to feed patients is under way in wards at the Royal Infirmary and the Western General Hospital, and Mrs Johnson’s initiative is set to be rolled out across Lothian if it proves successful.

The trial follows a Healthcare Improvement Scotland inspection which uncovered “significant concerns about the provision of meals across several wards and how patients were assisted to eat their meals” at the ERI.

Inspectors, who visited the hospital last August, reported that they had to intervene to ensure patients were helped at mealtimes, after some were left with food they were unable to eat.

Mrs Johnson, who worked as a ward receptionist at the old Royal Infirmary in the 1960s and 70s, first had concerns about meal times when she visited her husband on a general ward, where he was admitted due to arthritis and to have blood tests.

She said: “I used to go in at the end of mealtimes and I could see people weren’t eating properly. They were sending trays back full of uneaten food. I remember saying to him that if anything happened I would volunteer to feed patients. Unfortunately, George died six years ago, and after that I thought it was the time to carry it out.

“No-one else had asked to do it and I think it took them a wee bit by surprise. There was reluctance at first, they had to go through unions, committees, all sorts. But then they phoned me and asked me if I was still interested.”

Mr Johnson, a former council electrician, died in January 2007 at the Royal Infirmary, after he suffered complications from an operation he had 20 years previously before having a heart attack in hospital.

Mrs Johnson volunteered in December 2007, before she was finally allowed to begin the following August. She now volunteers at the hospital on Mondays and Tuesdays, usually staying for around two hours during lunch.

The grandmother of two, who has three children and a great grandson, said: “I just set up the trays and inquire if anybody needs a hand, and look at how interested they are in their food.

“If they take a long time, I might only get one person done but that’s just as important. After it’s finished I do a quick sweep of the ward. I pop my head into the bays and if there is someone sitting there with their food uneaten I see if they need a hand and ask if they need something cut up. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

“The nurses still pass out the food and feed anybody who can’t feed themselves, but they are pushed and I feel if I’m there it relieves them. They can’t be everywhere all the time.”

NHS Lothian began the pilot in November at the acute medicine for the elderly ward at the Western and the trauma orthopaedic ward at the ERI. It is set to be reviewed in coming months.

Mrs Johnson, who also volunteers at the Risk Factory in Chesser where she teaches primary seven children about health and safety dangers, said: “I hope it does go further, I am proud. It’s a very worthwhile job and I love it. If there’s someone who you’re told hasn’t eaten for a few days and they take something from you it’s a wonderful feeling.

“I spoke about it with George and he thought it was a wonderful idea. Three or four years later that’s what I was doing, so it’s fulfilling a wish to him as well.”

Mrs Johnson is one of around 1000 people – aged between 16 and 90 and from 26 different countries – who currently volunteer at NHS Lothian, including running hospital shops or arts and crafts classes.

Melanie Hornett, the health board’s nurse director, said: “As part of our action plan to improve older people’s services we recently introduced a pilot project which sees volunteers supporting our nursing teams during patient meal times.

“This includes helping patients fill in menu forms, ensuring they have the correct food order and offering appropriate assistance to the patient during meals.

“Where possible, we try to keep the same volunteer with the same patient so it then becomes more sociable.

“It’s about enhancing the whole patient experience. We are very proud of the contribution our volunteers make. They bring a range of skills and life experiences and are extremely beneficial to all our services. We also have a superb group of voluntary services managers who make sure these services are rewarding for the volunteers themselves.”

As well as issues surrounding meal times, NHS Lothian was criticised for failings in ensuring the personal dignity of elderly patients, while issues over care for patients with dementia and pressure ulcer prevention was also raised by Healthcare Improvement Scotland.

Since the report was published in October, NHS Lothian has introduced staff education programmes, and new measures to ensure patients are checked more regularly.


THE Royal College of Nursing (RCN) welcomed the initiative, but warned that volunteers must receive appropriate training and supervision.

RCN Scotland officer Lynn McDowall said: “There can be real benefits for patients having additional help at mealtimes. However, this must be what both the patient and those helping at mealtimes want. It’s important that the patient is assessed to make sure assistance can be given safely.

“Having volunteers, family members or carers helping out must never be a substitute for having enough registered nurses and healthcare support workers on the ward.”