In 2000 food expert and star of TV’s Through the Keyhole Loyd Grossman was appointed to lead a £40m drive to improve the quality of hospital food.
A year later “new hospital food” was described as slop by nurses, with one nurse researcher telling the BBC: “The hospital chefs are just given ingredients and they have to make the food. They are not always able to do that.”
I confess to finding this a bit surprising. I’d imagine that if you gave ingredients to chefs they would, by definition, be able to make food. Assuming you gave it to them in or near a kitchen. Maybe there was a clerical error? Maybe we were giving the ingredients to hospital chiefs by mistake? And they really didn’t know what to do with them.
‘Do we want patients to love the food they are given? If so, perhaps we could franchise catering to McDonald’s. Or is the responsibility of hospital food to provide nutrition?’
Anyway in 2003 figures released by the Department of Heath said only 17 per cent of hospitals were producing meals of “good quality”. Many of the others were made to sit on the naughty step or, to put it in the language of the time, were designated “red food hospitals”. Health minister Lord Hunt said food standards would have improved by the end of the year.
In 2005 the British Medical Association’s annual conference approved a motion to ask Jamie Oliver - fresh from his success in revolutionising school meals - to help with hospital food. Their concern was that the low standard of food and nutrition was slowing patient recovery. The DH said standards were improving; patients, on the other hand, felt differently. In 2006 a food watch survey of nearly 2,500 patients showed that a third of them abandoned their food and 40 per cent of them had visitors bring their food in for them. And in 2007 a survey by Which? magazine found a third of patients were unhappy with the standard of food they received.
Last week a new report said that hospital meals contained too much fat and salt. A hospital lasagne, for example, contains over six times more salt than one served in school. The DH expressed concern over the survey’s findings, saying they recognise the importance of nutrition and healthy foods in hospitals.
It may be that the dual drivers of cost and “patient satisfaction” create an unsolvable problem for hospital caterers. Patients do not necessarily measure their satisfaction by the nutritional value of food but instead by its taste and ability to make them feel full or nice. Similarly, whatever measly investment has been tossed at hospital food, it has tended to be spent on marketing rather than ingredients or provision.
Perhaps what we need is some clarity of purpose? Do we want patients to love the food they are given? If so, perhaps we could franchise catering to McDonald’s. Or is the responsibility of hospital food to provide nutrition rather than comfort or pleasure - and if patients don’t like that, so be it?
Whatever we decide, surely we can’t keep confusing pleasing people with helping people can we? Because therein lies the difference between working with customers and working with patients.