SCOTLAND'S largest health board is to rethink the food it serves to thousands of cancer patients following complaints that it is hampering their recovery.
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The move has come after patients at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, at Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow, registered concerns to NHS executives that the pre-prepared food was overcooked and inedible.
Family and friends have taken to bringing in food to ensure patients enjoy proper sustenance.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) is to look into developing a dedicated menu for patients at the Beatson, the country's largest cancer centre, for the first time.
The Herald's columnist and chief leader writer Anne Johnstone, 62, who is receiving intensive treatment for leukaemia at the centre, was so upset by the poor quality of food that she gathered 10 statements from similarly concerned cancer patients to send to NHS executives.
The Beatson centre is the second-largest in the UK, treating more than 8000 new patients every year, delivering more than 15,000 courses of chemotherapy and administering more than 6500 courses of radiotherapy.
Its food comes from new kitchens at the Inverclyde Royal Hospital in Greenock and the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley.
The NHS board said they both provide "fresh, nutritious, healthy food which is blast-frozen to retain freshness and taste and then delivered within hours to hospital sites to be reheated and served".
But Ms Johnstone, who has lost a stone in weight since she was diagnosed six weeks ago, challenged the board's assertion. She said the quality of food was unacceptable, yet it should be appetising and nutritional to help patients with their recovery.
She says cancer patients need to be encouraged to eat because they can lose their appetite during treatment and they should be provided with fresh, enticing food.
She said: "The treatment at the Beatson is absolutely fantastic but the food is execrable, which is why I decided to generate some public debate.
"The food reminded me more than anything else of school dinners in the 1950s. Just the smell was really revolting. I found it really difficult to even take the lid off."
Ms Johnstone said after she complained, she managed to have food that she chose, hummus and vegetable batons, but other patients were not so lucky.
"When you consider the cost of the drugs, to scrimp and save on catering seems the most absurdly false economy that there has ever been.
"To say they blast freeze the food, and then to describe the food as fresh is laughable."
But NHSGGC has now said: "Patient satisfaction with our catering is at an all-time high and we are therefore disappointed to learn of this patient's dissatisfaction with the food during her stay in hospital.
"The kitchens work closely with local catering managers and dietetics staff to ensure that patient's nutritional needs are being met. However, we know that taste and appetite can be particularly affected when a patient is receiving cancer treatment and that two patients can have an entirely different experience of the same menu.
"For instance, one patient can feel a meal is lacking in salt while another patient may experience the same meal as containing too much salt. We are, therefore, working closely with the specialist teams at the Beatson to look at ways of developing a specific menu for cancer patients."
The development was cautiously welcomed by Ms Johnstone who said: "It is pleasing that they are talking about thinking again. It is a step in the right direction. We really have to go back to the days when you had people based in the hospital catering for the specific needs of patients. That's what you need for cancer patients.
"Wherever I went in the Beatson, the food is the one thing that people complained about.
"The board meets at Gartnavel next Tuesday. So why don't we invite all board members to sample a typical hospital meal, after it has travelled round the hospital on a trolley?"
Other patients echoed her concerns in Ms Johnstone's collected statements with some telling how family members brought in food for them.
One, called Jean, described the food as awful, tasteless and disgusting, adding: "I would rather starve."
She said: "It's particularly bad when I'm feeling bad because of the treatment. Then even the smell of the food trolley makes me want to vomit. I've been getting my food from the cafe downstairs."
Another, called Ed, said: "You could use the toast here to tile the roof. It's an absolute disaster. It's all down to money."
Linda, a fellow patient, added: "The food here is a let-down. It is tasteless and over-cooked to the extent that all the nutritional value is gone. Much more fibre is needed to help our digestive systems."
The Beatson was officially opened in February 2008. It provides all the radiotherapy, and much of the chemotherapy, for patients with cancer in the west of Scotland. It offer a service to 60% of Scotland's population - 2.8 million people.