Warning after hundreds of hospital patients potentially harmed with wrong food

Patients who have swallowing difficulties or difficulty chewing need their food to be of a specific consistency
Patients who have swallowing difficulties or difficulty chewing need their food to be of a specific consistency

Health officials have issued a safety warning after it emerged that two hospital patients died after being given the wrong type of food while suffering from swallowing difficulties.

Hundreds of other people with such problems could have come to harm in the same way, according to the alert.

The warning, issued to the NHS in England by watchdog NHS Improvement, states that, over a recent two-year period, two patients died and seven others came to significant harm - such as choking - requiring an emergency team response, because of confusion over the language used to describe what sort of food patients with swallowing difficulties are able to eat.

Meanwhile, 270 other incidents resulted in low or no harm - such as coughing or a brief choking episode.

Patients who have swallowing difficulties or difficulty chewing need their food to be of a specific consistency.

There is a national terminology to describe what sort of density of food is suitable for such patients, but the safety warning states that local variations have persisted.

NHS Improvement's National Reporting and Learning System identified the incidents where patients may have come to harm due to confusion over the phrase "soft diet".

It said it received reports of people who were supposed to be on minced or pureed food being given hash browns, mince and peas, and sponge cake to eat.

NHS Improvement, along with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and The British Dietetic Association, have called for an end to the use of the phrase "soft diet".

NHS Improvement wants all NHS staff to start using the same categories for describing what food is appropriate for individual patients, to help avoid further harm.

"Vulnerable patients have died or been harmed because there is confusion in the way people describe what type of food is suitable for those with swallowing or chewing difficulties," said NHS Improvement's executive medical director and chief operating officer, Dr Kathy McLean.

"We are calling on everyone providing NHS-funded care to start using precise terminology to help avoid further harm. This will help save lives and make the NHS safer."