Expert study has now confirmed what many patients have long suspected - that hospital cuisine can be a threat to health.

The existence of this hazard is evident to captive diners in numerous healing institutions. Physicians, however, do not often partake of the fare, nor do they give much attention to patients' complaints. It is therefore pleasing to note that the suspicions have been vertified by scientific study, and representative findings were recently reported to a Senate hearing by Dr. C. B. Butterworth, chairman of the Department of Nutrition Science at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

Testing for "nutritional status" in 134 patients, Butterworth testified, he and his colleagues found that "fully three-fourths of the patients with a normal test at the time of admission had an abnormal result for the same test" when they left the hospital. From which he calculated that "at least 2 million persons suffered last year from hospital malnutrition and that most of it was either unrecognized or inadequately treated." What this comes down to, then, is that while the medical staff is healing you, the kitchen staff may be subjecting you to dietary destruction.

It would be inappropriate for me, untutored as I am in nutritional biochemistry, to comment on the scientific validity of these findings. But, as both patient and visitor in hospital in recent years. I feel that I can make a contribution to a better understanding of this newly recognized achievement of modern medicine: hospital-induced malnutrition, a condition that can be credited to the triumph of technology over edibility.

In return for $200 a day for bed and board - medical services are, of course, extra - the patient in a typical modern hospital is on the receiving end of a high-technology food-preparation and delivery system. Early in the day, he is invited to order his meals by blackening boxes on a multiple-choice menu that boxes on a multiple-choice menu that looks like a school examination. Collection of these papers is eventually followed by the arrival of an immense battery-driven cart, on which are stacked scores of trays, each containing covered, double-walled, heat-retaining platters.

"But," says the patient upon lifting the cover, "I didn't order this."

The cart jockey, obviously not unacquainted with such comments, shrugs and purrs down the corridor.

The patient then proceeds to examine the contents of the heat-holding platter, which, through a terrestrial spinoff from the space sciences, is remarkably close to room temperature. There, in the middle of said platter, is some material, apparently of animal origin, but not easily identifiable as to species or culinary intent.

It is recalled the back in high school lunchroom days, such preparations were referred to as "mystery meat." An appeal to a nurse produces a reply that meal planning has been computerized and, therefore, last-minute changes are not possible.

"But I didn't make a last-minute change," the patient says.

"It's a problem," the nurse replies, but, clearly, it's yours, not hers.

The only favorable aspect of this situation is that the powers of modern medicine have generally diminished the lengths of hospital stays, thus lessening the patient's exposure to the depredations of the kitchen.

As for why several million patients are improperly nourished at a time when proper nourishment for them is especially important and easily achievable - well, the problem is integral to the high-powered medical system that has developed in this country. Food, being an ordinary matter, is of little interest to specialists who have spent years mastering complex medical apparatus and procedures. Most anyone can dish up a decent meal, but only an expert can interpret an X-ray scan or direct radiation therapy. Which is why American medicine is so skilled in high-wire feats of technology and so deficient in matters that, though ordinary, are no less important.

Seeking to research this matter on my own, I once subsisted on smuggled-in fare while hospitalized, and sent home to my dog the contents of my tray. It was reported to me that he ate it. But he will eat most anything.