Exploring staff perceptions and experiences of volunteers and visitors on the hospital ward at mealtimes using an ethnographic approach

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Aims and objectives: To explore multiple perspectives and experiences of volunteer and visitor involvement and interactions at hospital mealtimes. In addition, to understand how the volunteer and visitor role at mealtimes is perceived within the hospital system. Background: Mealtime assistance can improve patients’ food intake and mealtime experience. Barriers to providing mealtime assistance include time pressures, staff availability and inadequate communication. Volunteers and visitors can encourage and assist patients at mealtimes. There is a lack of evidence on the relationship between hospital staff, volunteers and visitors. Design: A qualitative, ethnographic approach. Methods: Sixty-seven hours of fieldwork were conducted on two subacute wards within an Australian healthcare network in 2015. Mealtime practices and interactions of hospital staff, volunteers and visitors were observed. Sixty-one staff, volunteers and visitors were interviewed in 75 ethnographic and semi-structured interviews. Data were inductively and thematically analysed. Results: Three key themes emerged as follows: “help”—volunteers and visitors were considered helpful when they assisted patients at mealtimes, supported well-being and aided staff–patient communication; “hindrance”—staff perceived visitors as negative presences when they inhibited patient progress and impacted staff work practices; and “reality of practice”—visiting hours, visitor engagement in patient therapy and communication between staff, volunteers and visitors were important practical considerations of mealtime involvement. Conclusions: The findings show how and why volunteers and visitors can be helpful and unhelpful at hospital mealtimes on subacute wards. More research on the role and contribution of volunteers and visitors on hospital wards will inform future practice in healthcare settings. Relevance to clinical practice: This healthcare organisation should continue to encourage volunteer and visitor involvement at hospital mealtimes. More effort is needed to educate visitors about patients’ therapeutic goals and the importance of nutrition. The working relationship between hospital staff, volunteers and visitors should be strengthened to improve nutritional care.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e1571-e1579
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Clinical Nursing
Issue number7-8
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2018


  • hospital
  • mealtime assistance
  • nursing
  • qualitative study
  • visitors
  • volunteers

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