A third of elderly patients admitted to Illawarra hospitals are "overtly malnourished", with a further 50 per cent at nutritional risk, according to new research.
Alarmingly, most of these patients are being discharged in a poor nutritional state, leading to a cycle of ongoing illness and recurring hospital admissions, said lead researcher Associate Professor Karen Charlton.
Prof Charlton's team of researchers from the University of Wollongong's School of Health Sciences has worked with clinical dietitians at the region's hospitals for more than five years to collect the data.
Together they have assessed the nutritional status of more than 5000 elderly patients - 65 years and above - who entered acute care and rehabilitation hospitals in the Illawarra during that time.
"The study found that more than 80 per cent of older patients admitted to the region's hospitals were at some nutritional risk," Prof Charlton said.
"While they are treated well while in care, three-quarters of them are discharged back home in a poor nutritional state and that's when it all tends to go downhill.
"They are often left to fare for themselves as the referral systems between hospitals and community services are not adequate, so you often see a cycle start to happen where they keep getting ill and have to keep being readmitted to hospital."
Prof Charlton said research revealed that malnutrition led to longer hospital stays and poor clinical outcomes for older people.
"Even accounting for age and underlying illness, we found that there was a greater than three-fold increase in the risk of dying within 12 to 18 months for those patients with malnutrition," she said.
Communication was the key to stopping older people with malnutrition falling through the gaps in services.
She said that's the aim of an Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute project, which is a joint partnership between GPs, UOW researchers and the Graduate School of Medicine and the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District.
"Older people often don't like talking to their doctor about problems they're having with food and eating," she said.
"So, as part of the project, we're looking at the feasibility of introducing regular malnutrition screening for elderly people at their GPs, so those at high risk of going into care can instead be referred to dietitians or other community services.
"We're hoping the Illawarra can lead the way in this important area, and that the outcomes of this project can have larger implications for primary health services in NSW and indeed nationally."