Help or hindrance? Harnessing the resource of volunteers and visitors at hospital mealtimes

Mrs Ella Ottrey1,2, A/Prof Claire Palermo1, Dr Catherine E. Huggins1, A/Prof Judi Porter1,2

1Monash University, Notting Hill, Australia, 2Eastern Health, Box Hill, Australia



Assisting and encouraging patients at mealtimes can enhance their food intake and eating experience in hospital. Staff involvement at mealtimes can be limited by time pressures and availability. Volunteers and visitors provide mealtime assistance, however their relationship with staff is poorly understood. Guidance on how to harness the resource of volunteers and visitors at mealtimes is needed. This study explored multiple perspectives and experiences of volunteer and visitor involvement and interactions at hospital mealtimes. Additionally, it sought to understand how the volunteer and visitor role at mealtimes is perceived within the hospital system.


A qualitative, ethnographic approach was adopted. Sixty-seven hours of fieldwork were conducted on two hospital wards in Melbourne. Seventy-five interviews were conducted with staff, volunteers and visitors, supplemented by mealtime observations. Inductive and thematic data analysis was undertaken.


Volunteers and visitors were considered assets when they helped patients with their meals and supported staff-patient communication. Visitors were seen to detract from patient care when they hindered patient progress and staff work practices. Important considerations for volunteer and visitor involvement at mealtimes included visiting hours, engagement in patient therapy and communication with staff.

Significance of the findings to allied health:

The value of volunteers and visitors at mealtimes is contingent on their understanding of patients’ therapeutic goals and ability to promote positive eating experiences. Visitors may benefit from training before engaging in mealtime assistance. Strategies should focus on promoting effective working with the healthcare team to strengthen volunteer and visitor contributions to patient care.


Ella Ottrey is a clinical dietitian with 10 years of experience across a number of Victorian healthcare services. She is currently undertaking her PhD at Monash University exploring mealtimes in subacute care.