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Process, structural, and outcome quality indicators of nutritional care in nursing homes: a systematic review

BMC Health Services ResearchBMC series – open, inclusive and trusted201818:43

https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-018-2828-0

Received: 21 July 2016

Accepted: 3 January 2018

Published: 26 January 2018

Abstract

Background

The quality of nursing homes (NHs) has attracted a lot of interest in recent years and is one of the most challenging issues for policy-makers. Nutritional care should be considered an important variable to be measured from the perspective of quality management. The aim of this systematic review is to describe the use of structural, process, and outcome indicators of nutritional care in NHs and the relationship among them.

Methods

The literature search was carried out in Pubmed, Embase, Scopus, and Web of Science. A temporal filter was applied in order to select papers published in the last 10 years. All types of studies were included, with the exception of reviews, conference proceedings, editorials, and letters to the editor. Papers published in languages other than English, Italian, and Spanish were excluded.

Results

From the database search, 1063 potentially relevant studies were obtained. Of these, 19 full-text articles were considered eligible for the final synthesis. Most of the studies adopted an observational cross-sectional design. They generally assessed the quality of nutritional care using several indicators, usually including a mixture of many different structural, process, and outcome indicators. Only one of the 19 studies described the quality of care by comparing the results with the threshold values. Nine papers assessed the relationship between indicators and six of them described some significant associations—in the NHs that have a policy related to nutritional risk assessment or a suitable scale to weigh the residents, the prevalence or risk of malnutrition is lower. Finally, only four papers of these nine included risk adjustment. This could limit the comparability of the results.

Conclusion

Our findings show that a consensus must be reached for defining a set of indicators and standards to improve quality in NHs. Establishing the relationship between structural, process, and outcome indicators is a challenge. There are grounds for investigating this theme by means of prospective longitudinal studies that take the risk adjustment into account.

Keywords

MalnutritionNutritional careStructural indicatorsProcess indicatorsNursing homes

Background

With the increase in life expectancy and the prevalence of disabilities and comorbidity related to aging, nursing homes (NHs) now play an increasingly important role.

The quality of NHs has attracted a lot of interest in recent years and is one of the most challenging issues for policy-makers. In the NH sector, poor quality represents an issue of public concern and discussions are taking place to address it [14]. The quality of care in NHs is a multidimensional construct that is difficult to define and assess. According to Donabedian’s framework [5], quality is a function of three domains: structure, process, and outcome. Structure is defined by the attributes of the settings in which care is provided, process by the activities of the care-giving practitioners, and outcome by the change in the health status of the patient. Within these three domains, the quality of care can be measured by using the structure, process, and outcome quality indicators.

The use of structural and process indicators for quality management offers several advantages — they are generally easy to measure and interpret and the collected data are often routinely available. However, they might not reflect the level of the quality of care; structural and process indicators indicate the attributes of the NH and what is being done (or is supposed to be done), but they do not automatically translate into a higher quality of care or better outcomes. Therefore, they are ‘necessary but not sufficient’ characteristics and do not necessarily indicate the appropriateness of what is being done [6, 7]. Moreover, the NH context is complex and very little knowledge translation has been carried out to date [810]. Outcome indicators overcome these limitations and are considered to be more closely related to quality. However, they are influenced by the risk level of elderly patients—primarily due to their health status—as well as by the quality of the care process. For these reasons, outcome indicators have to be risk-adjusted [7, 11].

Moreover, in order for structural and process indicators to be valid for NHs in terms of other care settings, they must first demonstrate the ability to generate a better outcome [6]. Specifically, they should be associated with and influence the outcome indicator, for example in terms of variation over time.

These unresolved issues and limitations in the use and interpretation of quality indicators have led to difficulties in assessing the real influence of the structural and process indicators on the prediction of the outcome indicators. Difficulties have also arisen, in general, in the evaluation of the effectiveness of quality indicators and quality systems for improving the quality of care, health status, and quality of life in NHs [1215].

Malnutrition and unintentional weight loss in the NHs are major issues because of their high prevalence, serious health consequences, and related healthcare costs [1620]. Recent studies estimate that 20% of NH residents suffer from some form of malnutrition, the prevalence of which ranges between 1.5 and 66.5%, depending on the definition [17]. Moreover, malnutrition can influence the health status, leading to clinical complications such as impaired immune response, depression, pressure ulcers, falls, and even death [18].

The causes of malnutrition and weight loss in elderly people living in long-term care facilities can be classified as either individual (age, comorbidity) or organizational [21, 22]. For many elderly adults in NHs, aging is accompanied by a progressive physiological and medical decline, which leads to nutritional vulnerability. This in turn can create a progressive feeding dependency. Many organizational factors can negatively affect the assumption of nutritionally adequate diet for such people, thus increasing the likelihood of malnutrition and weight loss. Therefore, nutritional care (i.e. the substances, procedures, and setting involved in ensuring the proper intake and assimilation of nutrients) must be considered an important variable that should be measured from the perspective of quality management by using the related structural, process, and outcome indicators [12, 2226].

The aim of this review is to describe the state of the art with regard to:
  1. 1.

    the use of quality indicators of nutritional care in NHs;

     
  2. 2.

    the relationship between structural, process, and outcome indicators of nutritional care in NHs.

     

Methods

The literature search was carried out in four databases—Pubmed, Embase, Scopus, and Web of Science—and was completed with a manual search on the basis of the references given in the selected papers.

While performing the research, a temporal filter was applied in order to select papers published in the last 10 years. Databases were last accessed on 18 February 2016.

The search strategies used in each database are reported in Table 1.
Table 1

Search strategies of systematic review

DATABASE

Search strategy

Pubmed

((((((“Quality Assurance, Health Care”[Mesh]) OR “Quality Improvement”[Mesh]) OR “Quality Indicators, Health Care”[Mesh]) OR “Health Care Quality, Access, and Evaluation”[Mesh])) AND “last 10 years”[PDat]) AND ((“Malnutrition”[Mesh] OR “nutritional care” OR “weight loss”) AND “last 10 years”[PDat]) AND ((“Nursing Homes”[Mesh] OR “Long-Term Care”[Mesh]) AND “last 10 years”[PDat])

Embase

quality OR indicator* OR assurance OR ‘health care’/exp. AND (‘malnutrition’/exp. OR ‘nutritional care’ OR ‘weight loss’/exp) AND ‘nursing home*

Scopus

(((quality OR indicator* OR assurance OR “health care”) AND (malnutrition OR “nutritional care” OR “weight loss”) AND (nursing home*)))

Web of Science

(((quality OR indicator* OR assurance OR “health care”) AND (malnutrition OR “nutritional care” OR “weight loss”) AND (nursing home*)))

Two reviewers independently selected papers based on the inclusion criteria. Disagreements were resolved through a consensus meeting in the presence of a third reviewer.

In order to be included, papers had to examine both care quality and nutritional care in the specific setting of NHs; moreover, they had to respond to the aims of this study, namely to describe the use of quality indicators of nutritional care in NHs and/or to assess the relationship between structural, process, and outcome indicators of nutritional care in NHs. All types of studies were included, with the exception of reviews, conference proceedings, editorials, and letters to the editor.

Papers published in languages other than English, Italian and Spanish were excluded.

Figure 1 summarizes the selection process of the articles.
Figure 1
Fig. 1

Flow diagram of the study selection [58]

Results

From the database search, 1063 potentially relevant studies were obtained and screened for the presence of all inclusion criteria. Of the 63 studies selected on the basis of title and abstract, 44 were excluded: two because of language of publication, 11 for type of publication (four conference proceedings, three narrative reviews, three editorials, and one letter to the editor), 30 for outcomes (24 not concerning quality aspects, four not reporting quality indicators, and two not concerning nutritional aspects), and one for setting. Ultimately, 19 full-text articles were considered eligible for the final synthesis (Fig. 1).

Table 2 shows the main characteristics of each of the selected papers, including year of publication, country, setting, number of participants, type, and aim of the study. Most of the studies were conducted in the USA or Europe and adopted an observational cross-sectional design. One study [27] combined the Delphi method with an observational design. In two papers, the authors conducted a before/after analysis [28, 29].
Table 2

Main characteristics of selected studies

1st Author, Year of publication

Country

Setting/ n. participants

Type of study

Aim of the study

Bonaccorsi, 2015 [35]

Italy

67 NHs; 2395 participants

Cross-sectional survey

To describe the quality indicators of nutritional care in older residents in a sample of NHs in Tuscany, Italy, and to evaluate the predictors of protein-energy malnutrition risk.

Dyck, 2007 [39]

USA

2948 NHs for malnutrition; 364,339 residents

Cross-sectional analysis of two data sets

To examine the relationships between nursing staffing and the nursing home resident outcome on weight loss and dehydratation .

Halfens, 2013 [30]

The Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland

211 hospitals (20,232 patients); 165 NHs (6969 residents)

Cross-sectional multicentre study.

To measure care problems (including malnutrition) in terms of prevalence rates, prevention, treatment, and quality indicators in healthcare organizations in the Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland.

Hjaltadottir, 2012 [27]

Iceland

Panel for Delphi method: 12 experts; 47 NHs (2247 participants)

Two rounds Delphi study and observational study

To determine upper and lower thresholds of Minimum Data Set quality indicators for Icelandic NHs.

Hurtado, 2016 [40]

USA

30 NHs

Prospective ecological study

To examine whether quality of care in NHs was predicted by schedule control (workers’ ability to decide work hours), independent of other staffing characteristics.

Lee, 2014 [41]

USA

195 NHs

Cross-sectional analysis of five data sets

To examine the association of registered nurse staffing hours and five quality indicators, including process and outcome measures.

Meijers, 2009 [59]

The Netherlands

50 hospitals, 90 NHs, 16 care homes, and 20,255 participants

Cross-sectional multicentre study

To investigate screening, treatment, and other quality indicators of nutritional care in Dutch healthcare organizations.

Meijers, 2014 [36]

The Netherlands

74 Care homes (41 participated four times,33 five times); 26,046 participants (2007–2011)

Cross-sectional study

To analyse the trend of malnutrition prevalence rates between 2007 and 2011 in Dutch care homes and the effect of process and structural indicators on malnutrition prevalence rates.

Moore, 2014 [31]

Australia

Four Residential Aged Care (RAC)

Cross-sectional study

To explore relationships among the Victorian Public Sector RAC Services quality indicators and other demographic and health-related issues.

Rantz, 2009 [29]

USA

492 NHs

Before-after observational study

To present and discuss the evaluation of the Quality Improvement Program of Missouri in 2006, using some outcome indicators.

Schönherr, 2012 [32]

Austria

18 NHs (1487 participants); 18 hospitals (2326 participants)

Multicentre cross-sectional study

To describe and compare structural and process indicators of nutritional care in Austrian hospitals and NHs.

Shin, 2015 [42]

Korea

150 NHs

Cross-sectional study

To investigate the relationship between nurse staffing and quality of care in NHs in Korea.

Simmons, 2006 [28]

USA

1 NHs (48 beds)

Before-after observational study

To train long-term care staff in conducting continuous quality improvement (CQI) related to nutritional care.

Simmons, 2007 [44]

USA

7 NHs

Cross-sectional study

To assess the impact of Paid Feeding Assistant (PFA) programmes on feeding assistance care process quality.

Van Nie, 2014 [37]

The Netherlands, Germany and Austria

214 NHs 19,876 residents

Multicentre cross-sectional study

To identify structural quality indicators of nutritional care that influence the outcome of quality of care in terms of prevalence of malnutrition and effect of possible differences between malnutrition prevalence in Dutch, German, and Austrian NHs.

van Nie-Visser, 2011 [33]

The Netherlands and Germany

151 NHs, 10,771 participants

Multicentre cross-sectional study

To investigate possible differences in malnutrition prevalence rates in Dutch and German NHs, as well as in structural and process indicators for nutritional care

van Nie-Visser, 2014 [34]

The Netherlands, Germany and Austria

214 NHs; 19,876 residents

Multicentre cross-sectional study

To investigate possible differences in malnutrition prevalence rates in Austrian, Dutch, and German NHs, as well as in structural and process indicators for nutritional care; to investigate whether resident characteristics influence possible differences in malnutrition prevalence between countries.

van Nie-Visser, 2015 [38]

The Netherlands, Germany and Austria

214 NH; 22,886 participants,

Multicentre cross-sectional study

To explore whether structural quality indicators for nutritional care influence malnutrition prevalence in Dutch, German, and Austrian NHs

Werner, 2013 [43]

USA

16,623 NHs

Cross- sectional study using 2 data sets

To test how changes in NH processes improve outcomes of care.

Seven studies only aimed to measure the prevalence of malnutrition/weight loss (as outcome indicator) and the use of structural or process indicators [20, 27, 3034]. Four others tried to assess both the prevalence of malnutrition and the relationship among the quality indicators [3538]. Five only assessed the relationship between indicators (without describing their prevalence/use) [3943], and three examined the effect of nutritional care interventions on outcome indicators [28, 29, 44].

With regard to the collection of information, the most commonly used instruments were the standardized Landelijke Prevalentiemeting Zorgproblemen (LPZ) questionnaire, the Minimum Data Set (MDS), and the Online Survey, Certification, and Reporting (OSCAR). LPZ is more widely used in European countries and aims to assess malnutrition prevalence. MDS and OSCAR are more common in the American context—the former predicts unplanned weight loss while the latter includes facility-reported data on residents’ characteristics. In some other studies [28, 35, 42, 44], ad hoc instruments were used. In one of them, the ad hoc instrument was improved on the basis of a literature analysis [35]. Hurtado et al. [41] used both standardized instruments and ad hoc questionnaire.

The selected papers show heterogeneity in the considered quality indicators, particularly the structural and process indicators. As regards the outcome indicators, the authors considered the risk of malnutrition (according to Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool), weight loss (according either to MDS or VPSRAC - Victorian Public Sector Residential Aged Care Services - definition), and malnutrition prevalence (according to LPZ questionnaire) (Table 3).
Table 3

Quality indicators of nutritional care reported in the selected papers

1st Author, Year of publication

Instruments for collecting data on quality indicators

Structural/process indicators

Outcome indicators

Bonaccorsi, 2015 [35]

Ad hoc instruments (questionnaire/direct observation)

Structural indicators

Prevalence of subjects with medium to high risk of malnutrition, according to MUST.

Type of scales used to weigh residents

Employment of dietitians and type of consultation

Number of operators assigned to manage the administration of meals in a specific day

Process indicators

Use of a nutrition screening tool

Presence of protocols/guidelines for weight assessment

Presence of protocols or guidelines for administration of food

Assessment of dysphagia

Dyck, 2007 [39]

MDS; OSCAR

Staffing hours:

Weight lossa

- RN hours per resident per day

- LPN hours per resident per day

Halfens, 2013 [30]

LPZ

Not described

Malnutrition prevalenceb

Hjaltadottir, 2012 [27]

MDS

Weight lossa

Hurtado, 2016 [40]

Nursing Home Compare/MDS; ad hoc questionnaire

Schedule control (from ad hoc questionnaire):

Weight lossa

- to choose when to take day off or vacation

- to choose when to start/end each work day

- to choose when to take a few hours of break

- to decide how many hours to work each day

Lee, 2014 [41]

MDS; the Colorado state inspections

RN staffing hours (from the Colorado state inspections data)

Weight lossa

Meijers, 2009 [59]

LPZ

Institutional level

Malnutrition prevalenceb

Availability of an up-to-date protocol/guideline on malnutrition prevention and treatment

Auditing of protocol/guideline for malnutrition prevention and treatment

Availability of malnutrition advisory teams

Multiple dietitians available in the institution

Malnutrition education (prevention and treatment) given by malnutrition specialist within the last two years

Ward level

Trained malnutrition specialist working on the ward

Control of use of prevention and treatment guidelines

Policy to measure weight at admission

Documentation of malnutrition interventions

Correct mealtime ambience

Meijers, 2014 [36]

LPZ

Structural indicators

Malnutrition prevalenceb

Institutional level

There is an agreed protocol/guideline for the prevention and/or treatment of malnutrition within the institution.

There is an advisory committee for malnutrition at the institution or department level.

There is someone within the institution who is responsible for updating and ensuring that the necessary attention is devoted to the malnutrition protocol.

Over the last two years, a refresher course and/or a meeting was organized for caregivers, which was/were specifically devoted to the prevention and treatment of malnutrition within the institution.

Ward level

There is at least one person/specialist in the department/basic care unit/team who is specialized in the area of malnutrition.

Work in the department/basic care unit/team is done in a controlled fashion or in accordance with the malnutrition protocol/guideline.

Upon admission, every resident is weighed as a part of standard procedure.

The nutritional status is screened upon admission.

The care file/care plan specifies the activities that must be implemented for residents who are at risk of malnutrition.

The department has a policy on when and how to measure weight.

Process indicators

Assessment of the nutritional status by a validated screening instrument

Weight monitoring in a controlled fashion

Dietitian consultation

Use of nutritional treatment

Moore, 2014 [31]

VPSRACS; data routinely collected in the facilities included in the study

Weight lossc

Rantz, 2009 [29]

MDS

Not described (QIPMO—nurse site visits to suggest how to improve quality of care)

Weight lossa

Schönherr, 2012 [32]

LPZ

Structural indicators:

Malnutrition prevalenceb

Guideline for prevention and treatment

Auditing of guideline

Advisory committee for malnutrition

Updating of guideline

Criteria for determining malnutrition

Employment of dietitians

Refresher course for caregivers

Information brochure

Standard policy for handover

Process indicators

Assessment of weight

Use of nutritional screening tool

Assessment of weight over time

Use of clinical view

Use of biochemical parameters

Dietitian consulted

Energy- and protein-enriched diet

Energy-enriched snack

Oral nutritional support

Enteral nutrition

Parenteral nutrition

Texture-modified diet

Fluid 1–1.5 L/d

No interventions owing to palliative policy

Shin, 2015 [42]

Ad hoc instruments (questionnaire-interviews)

Nurse staffing, by type (RN, CNA, qualified care workers):

Weight lossa

- hours per resident per day

- skill-mix hours per resident per day

- staff turnover

Simmons, 2006 [28]

Ah hoc instruments (direct observation)

Feeding Assistance Care Process Measure:

-% of residents who eat less than 50% of meal and receive less than one min of assistance.

-% of residents who eat less than 50% of meal and are not offered a substitute.

-% of residents who receive less than five min of assistance and a supplement.

-% of residents who are independent but receive physical assistance.

- % of residents who receive physical assistance without verbal cue.

Simmons, 2007 [44]

Ah hoc instruments (direct observation)

Feeding Assistance Care Process Measure, by type of staff (CNAs, PFAs, no assistance from either type of staff):

-% of residents who eat less than 50% of meal and receive less than one min of assistance.

-% of residents who eat less than 50% of meal and are not offered a substitute.

-% of residents who receive less than five min of assistance and a supplement.

-% of residents who are independent but receive physical assistance.

- % of residents who receive physical assistance without verbal cue.

Van Nie, 2014 [37]

LPZ

Structural indicators

Malnutrition prevalenceb

Institutional level

There is an agreed protocol/guideline for the prevention and/or treatment of malnutrition within the institution.

Malnutrition-related work within the institution is carried out in a controlled fashion or in accordance with a malnutrition protocol/guideline.

There is a multidisciplinary advisory committee for malnutrition at the institutional or ward level.

There is someone within the institution who is responsible for updating and ensuring that the necessary attention is devoted to the malnutrition protocol.

Within the institution, criteria have been defined for determining malnutrition.

There are dietitians employed at the institution.

Over the past two years, a refresher course and/or a meeting has been organized for caregivers, which was specifically devoted to the prevention and treatment of malnutrition within the institution.

An information brochure about malnutrition is available at the institution for clients and/or family members.

Ward level

There is at least one nurse in the ward who is specialized in the area of malnutrition

Clients who are at risk of malnourishment or who are malnourished are discussed on the ward during multidisciplinary work consultations.

Work in the ward is conducted in a controlled fashion or in accordance with a malnutrition protocol/guideline.

At admission, every client is weighed as a part of standard procedure.

At admission, the height of each client is determined as a part of standard procedure.

The nutritional status is assessed at admission.

The care file includes an assessment as to each patient’s risk of malnutrition.

The care file/care plan specifies the activities that must be implemented for clients who are at risk of malnutrition.

In case of (expected) malnutrition, a protein- and energy-enriched diet is provided in the ward as a part of standard procedure.

Every client who is malnourished (or is at risk for becoming so) and his or her family receive an informational brochure about malnutrition.

The ambience at mealtimes is taken into account within the ward.

The care file includes the intake for each client.

The ward has a weight policy.

van Nie-Visser, 2011 [33]

LPZ

Structural indicators

Malnutrition prevalenceb and prevalence of subjects with risk of malnutrition.

Institution level

Prevention and treatment protocol/guideline

‘At risk of malnutrition is defined as meeting one or more of the following criteria: (1) BMI 21–23.9 kg/m2, (2) not eaten or hardly eaten anything for three days or not eaten normally for more than a week.

Malnutrition advisory team

Auditing of protocol/guideline

Dietitians employed in institution

Education on malnutrition prevention and treatment in last 2 years

Information brochure available for client or family

Ward level

Person specialized in malnutrition on unit

Control of use of prevention/treatment guideline

Measurement of weight at admission

Interventions on malnutrition stated in patient file

Optimal mealtime ambience provided at dinner

Process indicators

Assessment of weight

Use of nutritional screening tool

Weight history

Use of clinical view

Use of biochemical parameters

Energy- and protein-enriched diet

Energy-enriched snacks between meals

Oral nutritional supplements

Tube feeding

Parenteral feeding

Fluid 1–1.5 L/d

No interventions

Palliative policy

van Nie-Visser, 2015 [38]

LPZ

See above (….)

Malnutrition prevalenceb

van Nie-Visser, 2014 [34]

LPZ

Malnutrition prevalenceb

Werner, 2013 [43]

MDS/Nursing Home Compare; OSCAR

-% of residents receiving tube feeds

Weight lossa

-% of residents receiving mechanically altered diets

-% of residents with assisted eating devices

MUST Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool

MDS Minimum Data Set

LPZ Landelijke Prevalentiemeting Zorgproblemen (In Dutch)

VPSRACS Victorian Public Sector Residential Aged Care Services

OSCAR Online Survey, Certification, and Reporting

ARF Area Resource File

RN Registered Nurse

LPN Licensed Practical Nurse

CNA certified nursing assistant

QIPMO Quality Improvement Program of Missouri

PFA Paid Feeding Assistant

aloss of 5% or more in the last months or loss of 10% or more in the past six months, as defined in MDS

b(1) BMI ≤ 18.5 kg/m2(age 18–65 years) or BMI ≤ 20 kg/m2 (age > 65 years), and/or (2) unintentional weight loss (more than 6 kg in the previous six month or more than 3 kg in the last month) and/or (3) no nutritional intake for three days or reduced intake for more than 10 days combined with a BMI between 18.5–20 kg/m2 (age18–65 years) or between 20 and 23.9 kg/m2(age > 65 years)

closs of ≥3 kg over three months, or any unplanned weight loss for each consecutive month of the quarter

Of the19 selected papers, nine studies [29, 3540, 42, 44] examined the influence of structural and process indicators on the outcome indicators (Table 4).
Table 4

Relationship between structural, process and outcome indicators of nutritional care

1st Author, Year of publication

Risk adjustment

Main results

Bonaccorsi, 2015 [35]

Age, gender, the Barthel Index score, the Pfeiffer test score, the EBS score, where the subject consumed lunch on the day of the survey

Among the process and structural indicators included in the study, the only one with a role in predicting malnutrition was the availability of a scale suitable for weighing residents even in the case of mobility restriction (chair or platform scale).

Dyck, 2007 [39]

Residents’ case-mix: end of life, depression, swallowing problem, renal failure, diabetes mellitus

Staffing hours affect weight loss: residents receiving at least three hours/day of nursing assistant care had a 17% decreased likelihood of weight loss.

Hurtado, 2016 [40]

High-risk residents’ adjustment at facility level (not described).

Schedule control was not associated with weight loss.

Meijers, 2014 [36]

NO

Only the interacted process indicators nutritional screening and oral nutritional supplementation were significant in influencing malnutrition prevalence rates over time. Structural indicators had no impact on the malnutrition prevalence over time.

Rantz, 2009 [29]

NO

‘At risk’ facilities (defined using quality indicators derived from MDS) accepting one or more visits improved weight loss quality indicators by 4%.

Shin, 2015 [42]

NO

Hours per resident per day, skill-mix hours per resident per day, and staff turnover are not statistically associated with weight loss.

Van Nie, 2014 [37]

NO

Five structural quality indicators influenced malnutrition prevalence in NH residents at the ward level: presence of at least one nurse in the ward specialized in the area of malnutrition; nutrition assessment upon admission; inclusion in the care file of the assessment as to the risk of malnutrition for each client; provision of a protein- and energy-enriched diet in case of (expected) malnutrition, in accordance with a standard procedure; inclusion in the care file of the intake for each client.

van Nie-Visser, 2015 [38]

NO

Two structural quality indicators of nutritional care at ward level influence malnutrition prevalence in NH residents: the policy that a care file should include the nutritional intake for each resident and the policy for ward having a weight measurement.

Werner, 2013 [43]

Data controlled for case-mix and for facility-level characteristics related to residents’ case-mix:

• Age

• Activity of Daily Living

• Cognitive performance scale

• % of residents who needs radiation therapy, chemotherapy, dialysis, intravenous therapy, respiratory treatments, tracheostomy care, ostomy care, suctioning, injections

The statistically significant improvement in weight loss indicator could not be explained by changes in the investigated measures of process of care (% of residents receiving tube feeds; % of residents receiving mechanically altered diets; % of residents with assisted eating devices).

EBS Eating Behaviour Scale, MDS Minimum Data Set, OSCAR Online Survey, Certification, and Reporting

In four of the studies [35, 39, 40, 43], an individual risk adjustment procedure was applied by using different variables and determining heterogeneity among the different studies. While five studies [29, 3538] showed a significant association between some structural or process indicators and the outcome indicators, said association was found for different structural and process indicators.

Discussion

In this review, we selected 19 papers in the aim of investigating the use of quality indicators of nutritional care in NHs. The selected papers assessed the quality of nutritional care in NHs in general by using several indicators, normally including a mixture of several structural, process, and outcome indicators. Most of the studies used standardized questionnaires or instruments to collect data on quality indicators, either routinely applied at a state level for mandatory reasons (MDS, Victorian Public Sector Residential Aged Care Services [VPSRACS]), or implemented as an annual measurement of malnutrition prevalence and structural quality indicators of nutritional care in the NHs that voluntarily decided to participate to the study (LPZ). As for the outcomes, different indicators were taken into account. However, weight loss was always included, although different combinations of time periods and cut-offs were considered for each instrument. It was evident that no consensus exists on the sets of indicators to be used, especially outcome indicators, even though only a few instruments were used to collect data. Nevertheless, according to our findings, the presence of nutritional screening and its inclusion in the care file, the availability and use of protocols on malnutrition prevention and treatment, mealtime assistance, and the use of nutritional treatment/supplements, all appear to be relevant indicators for nutritional care quality assessment. In any case, studies aimed at testing the reliability and validity of these indicators, as well as the outcome indicators, need to be developed in order to identify the best set of indicators for describing the quality of nutritional care in NHs. This is also in agreement with statements of other authors [45, 46].

Most of the papers aimed to describe the quality of nutritional care in NHs, at times also to compare the data in different geographical areas, settings, or time periods. However, they do not discuss the collected data in terms of good or poor quality with respect to a standard, with the exception of the paper by Hjaltadòttir et al. [27], in which the quality of care in Icelandic NHs was compared with the threshold values that had been determined in the same study. Thresholds for quality indicators could help guide and facilitate progress in the NHs’ quality of care, indicating the potentially poor or good quality of care and improvement goals [27]. Criteria and standards specify the expected outcome, and encourage the performer to progress towards fulfilling them. However, no internationally recognized comprehensive standards are available, although the laws and reforms of long-term care systems in many countries have also included aspects of quality assurance and improvement, such as the setting of minimum requirements as preconditions of licensing and contractual decisions for providers [2, 3]. The lack of internationally recognized standards can be attributed to the complexity of the context of long-term care and the fact that context and residents often differ considerably in the different NHs. Research on threshold values and standards for nutritional care should be encouraged, taking into account the specificity of the setting and the residents as well as the knowledge translation aspects [8].

The prevalence or risk of malnutrition is associated with aspects such as having a policy related to nutritional risk assessment (i.e. screening the subjects for malnutrition, weighing them, assessing and recording nutritional intake) or having suitable scales to weight the residents; when these aspects are present or used in NHs, the prevalence or risk of malnutrition is lower.

In two [36, 37] out of three [3638] articles that investigated the provision of a protein- and energy-enriched diet, or the use of oral nutritional supplementation in case of (expected) malnutrition, this factor was found to be related to malnutrition. Malnutrition is more prevalent in institutions implementing this indicator. Therefore, providing an enriched diet or oral nutritional supplementation seems to be more of an intervention treatment than a preventive one. This hypothesis and the role of screening for malnutrition are both confirmed by the results of the study by Meijers et al. [36]—the only one in which a trend evaluation of the outcome indicator is carried out. In fact, according to the authors, structural screening is the most important indicator of a decrease in the prevalence of malnutrition. In NHs with a higher prevalence of malnutrition, more residents receive oral nutritional supplementation. While the provision of oral nutritional supplementation is associated with a gradual decrease in the prevalence of malnutrition, this drop is more pronounced if the use is lower, probably due to the fact that the group receiving less oral nutritional supplementation is probably in better health [36].

On the other hand, quality indicators related to the staff (i.e. employment of dieticians, malnutrition specialists, person in charge of the malnutrition protocol, or a multidisciplinary malnutrition advisory team, the organization of courses on malnutrition, and staff turnover) do not seem to affect the outcome indicators, with the exception of the ‘presence of at least one nurse in the ward specialized in the area of malnutrition’ in one of the papers by Van Nie et al. [37] and ‘receiving at least [three] hours/day of nursing assistant care’ in the study by Dyck et al. [39]. Consequently, the presence of a staff member with competencies in nutritional aspects and specific education or training is related to malnutrition risk in just one study, where it only concerns the presence of nurses with specific competencies in the area of malnutrition. This result is in line with the results of two reviews regarding staffing and the various aspects of the quality of care in NHs [13, 47].

Regarding the relationship between indicators, we have also included risk adjustment to control individual risk in our assessment, in order to generalize the results for residents with different levels of disabilities and comorbidities. The need for individual risk adjustment in the assessment of quality of care in NHs has emerged simultaneously with the growing attention to quality in healthcare, but only a few authors have considered this factor to avoid a biased use of quality indicators [11, 48]. Individual risk adjustment has yielded better results in terms of validity and comparability, since NH residents are quite dissimilar [3, 7, 4954]. In our review, only four papers [35, 39, 40, 43] out of nine included risk adjustment, which could limit the comparability of the results. Risk adjustment should also be taken into account when identifying the thresholds for quality indicators in order to control the cut-off levels for individual risk.

Eight [3540, 42, 43] of the nine articles describe the results obtained through a cross-sectional or ecological approach. One cross-sectional study includes a sample at the time of ascertainment, selected without any reference to exposure or health outcome (disease status or other condition of interest, such as risk of a disease). Exposure is determined simultaneously with the health condition, and different exposure subpopulations are compared with respect to their health status to assess correlation or association between exposure and outcome. Such studies have difficulty determining the chronological order of events (i.e. the beginning of the exposure and the onset of a health condition). Due to this limitation, it is not possible to work out whether an association between exposure and outcome demonstrated in a cross-sectional study underlies a cause-effect relationship. The same issue occurs for ecological studies in which the association or the correlation between exposure and health outcome is assessed using groups rather than individuals (the unit of analysis is the group, and the analysis is conducted without considering the individual level) [55]. Cross-sectional, ecological and other descriptive studies are often the initial tentative approaches to new events or conditions for generating a hypothesis for causation (‘hypothesis-generating’ studies). The etiologic hypothesis has to be tested through cohort, case-control, or experimental studies [56, 57]. Therefore, considering the study design of almost all articles included in this review, it is not possible to fully understand the type of relationship (i.e. etiologic or not) between process or structural indicators and outcome indicators.

One article [29] in the sample includes a before-after observational study aimed at evaluating a quality improvement programme that is not described in detail. As a result, when reading the paper it is not possible to understand whether the implemented measures would be able to foresee aspects concerning specific structural or process indicators.

Conclusions

Our findings show that there is an open debate regarding the indicators that could be used to describe the quality of nutritional care in NHs. A consensus must be reached to define a set of indicators and a standard to improve the quality in NHs. For this purpose, studies aimed at testing the reliability and validity of the indicators are encouraged. Moreover, the relationships among structural, process, and outcome indicators are a matter of challenge. According to our results, while the prevalence or risk of malnutrition is associated with aspects such as having a policy related to nutritional risk assessment or having suitable scales to weigh the residents, these findings need to be confirmed. In conclusion, there are grounds for investigating this new theme by means of prospective longitudinal studies that also take the risk adjustment into account.

Abbreviations

ARF: 

Area Resource File

BMI: 

Body Mass Index

CNA: 

Certified nursing assistant

EBS: 

Eating Behaviour Scale

LPN: 

Licensed Practical Nurse

LPZ: 

Landelijke Prevalentiemeting Zorgproblemen (In Dutch)

MDS: 

Minimum Data Set

MUST: 

Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool

NH: 

nursing home

OSCAR: 

Online Survey, Certification, and Reporting

PFA: 

Paid Feeding Assistant

QIPMO: 

Quality Improvement Program of Missouri

RN: 

Registered Nurse

VPSRACS: 

Victorian Public Sector Residential Aged Care Services

Declarations

Acknowledgements

Not applicable.

Funding

The review has been conducted using the founding of the University of Florence. No external founding has been used.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.

Authors’ contributions

CL: study design, analysis of the selected papers, interpretation of the results, drafting of the manuscript, final approval of the manuscript. BRP: study design, literature search, selection of the papers, analysis of the selected papers, interpretation of the results, drafting of the manuscript, final approval of the manuscript. FP: study design, literature search, selection of the papers, analysis of the selected papers, interpretation of the results, drafting of the manuscript, final approval of the manuscript. GB: study design, interpretation of the results, drafting of the manuscript, final approval of the manuscript.

Ethics approval and consent to participate

Not applicable.

Consent for publication

Not applicable.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Department of Health Science, University of Florence, Florence, Italy
(2)
School of Specialization in Hygiene and Preventive Medicine, University of Florence, Florence, Italy

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