THERE is a problem with hospital food.
As The Herald's Anne Johnstone highlighted in her column yesterday, it is often stodgy, unpleasant and lacking in nutrition. Furthermore, rather than being made on site from fresh ingredients, it is often driven from miles away and reheated before being wheeled in front of the patients.
Anne discovered all of this for herself while being treated at the Beatson in Glasgow. The catering, she said, was the weakest link in an otherwise excellent service. It meant that being at the hospital was, in her words, like travelling in a Rolls-Royce that has one irritatingly malfunctioning component.
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Anne's response to this situation was to take matters into her own hands. Not only did she ask her family to bring in fresh cold food (reheating your own food is banned), she went round the other patients in her ward and gathered signed statements complaining about the food. As the statements point out, it was unappetising and reheated. Salads and apples are pretty much the only fresh food available.
None of this makes sense. We know that the NHS's resources are tight and reheating pre-packed food is cheaper than employing chefs and kitchen staff to make the meals on site from scratch using fresh ingredients. But patients - and in particular cancer patients - need, and should expect, the extra help of nutritious, healthy, fresh food. The last thing cancer patients, who often struggle to maintain their weight and can have trouble eating, need to see is rubbery, stodgy, lukewarm food.
To some extent, this problem with hospital food is part of a bigger problem in Scotland. For too long, Scots have been getting progressively fatter on a diet of low-quality processed meals. Hospitals should be a refuge from this trend. Instead, we know that patients, particularly the elderly, are often let down and are not given the food and drink they need.
To its credit, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board has acted swiftly and promised a rethink. In particular, the board has confirmed it will look at developing a dedicated menu for cancer patients, although it makes the point that it has invested £10m in the kitchens that serve its hospitals. It also points out that cancer treatment can affect taste and appetite.
It is also important to note that food is only one of the worrying factors in how Scotland treats cancer. As a country, we have failed to crack the problems of bad diet, alcohol and smoking, factors which cause more than 40 per cent of cancers. Sadly, this means that the incidence of cancer has risen by 3% in the last decade.
In the treatment of most cancer cases, speed is also of the essence and yet hundreds of cancer patients in Scotland are still waiting longer than the target times set by the Scottish Government because of a lack of time in operating theatres, staff shortages and lack of equipment.
None of that changes the fact that in the longer term, the problem with hospital food needs to be fixed.
If it is the desire to save money that is driving down quality, and keeping it down, it is a false economy because healthy food leads to healthier patients who move on and free up beds. More importantly, the NHS's duty of care to its patients must extend to the food it gives them. On any reasonable measure, it does not seem to fulfil that duty.