Indigenous people experience a higher burden of nutrition-related conditions and are more likely to experience food insecurity compared to non-Indigenous people. Consequently, they remain at increased risk of malnutrition; particularly when residing in regional or remote areas. This study aims to compare and characterise the burden and nature of malnutrition among a representative cohort of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians admitted to regional hospitals for medical inpatient care.
This was a cross-sectional survey conducted in three regional hospitals in the Northern Territory and Far North Queensland of Australia from February 2015 to September 2015. A total of 1606 adult medical inpatients were screened for eligibility. Of these, 608 eligible patients were screened for malnutrition using the validated Malnutrition Screening Tool and assessed for malnutrition using the Subjective Global Assessment. Socio-economic and health-related variables and anthropometric measurements were collected to identify the correlates of malnutrition.
Of the 271 Indigenous patients and 337 non-Indigenous patients screened and assessed for malnutrition, 250/608 (41.7%, 95% CI 40.1–52.3%) were found to be malnourished. Significantly higher rates of malnutrition (46.1%, 95% CI 40.1–52.3% versus 37.1%, 95% CI 31.9–42.5%) were found in Indigenous patients compared to non-Indigenous patients (P = 0.024). Higher rates of malnutrition were observed in Indigenous patients residing in Central Australia (56.7%, 95% CI 46.7–66.4%) than in the Top End of the Northern Territory (40.7%, 95% CI 31.7–50.1%) and in Far North Queensland (36.7%, 95% CI 23.4–51.7%). Factors independently predictive of malnutrition for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants included residence in Central Australia (OR 4.31, 95% CI 2.63–7.90, P < 0.001); an increased Charlson Comorbidity Index prognostic score (OR 1.37 [per incremental score], 95% CI 1.19–1.59, P < 0.001); and an underweight Body Mass Index (OR 29.97, 95% CI 3.68–244.0, P < 0.001). Of the 250/608 patients who were malnourished, the positive predictor value (PPV) for malnourished patients who were underweight was 96.6% (95% CI 88.3–99.6%); for Indigenous Australians who were malnourished and underweight, the PPV was 100%. A mid-upper arm circumference of less than 23 cm demonstrated a strong PPV for all patients who were malnourished (96.1%, 95% CI 89.0–99.2%).
This is the first study to characterise malnutrition in adult Indigenous Australians in a hospital inpatient setting. Compared to non-Indigenous patients the burden and pattern of malnutrition was both higher and markedly different among Indigenous patients. These data highlight the critical importance for actively screening for and responding to malnutrition in this vulnerable patient population in regional and remote settings.