"There's been a lot of attention on the obesity epidemic in the country, but [an assessment of] malnutrition cannot be done visually," says Parkhurst, who is also medical director of the hospitalist section and medical director of the University of Kansas Hospital Nutrition Support Service. "You can have a patient that looks to be visually overnourished, but who could actually be malnourished. You can get caught missing the diagnosis."
And that's the problem, she explains. Too many potential malnutrition diagnoses are being missed. That's why the alliance has issued a "wake-up call" in a report for providers to collaborate and improve nutritional care, Parkhurst says.
For physicians and hospitals, dealing with patients' nutrition is important for improved patient care—and for the financial bottom-line of the healthcare providers themselves, Parkhurst adds.
The alliance reports that malnutrition is "associated with many adverse outcomes," such as increased infection rates, muscle wasting, impaired wound healing and immune suppression. Malnutrition also can result in increased risk of patient falls and overall longer hospital stays.
Many of the adverse outcomes influenced by malnutrition are potentially preventable, the alliance states. Nosocomial infections are one example. About 2 million nosocomial infections occur annually in the U.S., and patients who have them are more likely to spend time in the intensive care unit, "be readmitted, and die as a result," the alliance states.
Hospitalized patients, regardless of body mass, can suffer from "undernutrition" because of their propensity for reduced food intake which could be the result of poor appetite from illnesses, gastrointestinal symptoms, or reduced ability to chew or swallow.