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Trusts on trial: Hospital food

08 March 2016 by
Trusts on trial: Hospital food

Hospital food is an easy target in the press, often pilloried as tasteless, grey mush given to patients when they most need a decent, nutritious meal. So which hospitals have upped their game and turned their catering around? Katey Pigden reports

Hospital food has been in the limelight for all the wrong reasons in recent years, often finding itself the butt of critical newspaper headlines. The public generally has a low opinion of the meals served, and even some hospital staff say they wouldn't eat the food given to patients.

Behind the headlines

So what's the real story? A recent freedom of information request by Scotland on Sunday found that Scottish hospitals threw away more than 590 untouched or partially eaten meals every day last year, equating to costs of more than £1m. The investigation discovered that more than 215,300 meals were binned in 2014-15, but the full figure is expected to be even higher, as some health boards were unable to provide figures.

But Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw branded the figures as "an inexcusable waste of public money" and campaigners questioned the quality of the food served.

Carlaw said: "Inevitably, some meals will not be consumed, but this will surely be less likely if they are appealing and beneficial in the first place. These new figures add injury to a hospital food farce which has gone on for too long."

NHS Scotland spent around £87m on catering during 2014-15, which equates to £87 per patient each week.

Behind the scenes surprises

But perhaps things aren't that bad. Another local newspaper, the Lincolnshire Echo, went behind the scenes to get a taste of what hospital meals are really like. The reporter was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't the horror story she was expecting at Lincoln County Hospital. All the meals were produced on-site and patients were given a choice of two or three regular-sized hot meals at lunch.

The hospital operates a cook-chill system, which hotel services and catering manager Wayne Mcintosh says was brought in to maintain the quality of the food. It has also been a more cost-effective method for the hospital.

He said: "Historical data shows us what our patients like, so we know roughly how much of certain meals to produce every day."

Getting things right

Patients may not expect a gourmet meal during their hospital stay, but food is certainly an important part of their recovery, and caterers are stepping up to play their part.

Celebrity chef James Martin visited several hospitals as part of his Operation Hospital Food TV series, in which he embarked on a personal mission to transform the standard of hospital food. Birmingham's Royal Orthopaedic Hospital (ROH) was one of the institutions featured in 2013. In May last year, the results of a national survey of patients, carried out by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), showed the ROH was rated among some of the best-performing NHS organisations, providing a choice of food that was better than most other trusts. In 2011 and 2012, around 40% of people described the food offered as 'poor' or 'fair', but in 2014, 74% of people described it as better than those two options.

Garry Marsh, director of nursing and governance at Birmingham ROH said: "We know how important the non-medical things like food are to patients. The team has worked hard to change how we provide our patients with food."

Although Martin had some impact on the hospital, the most significant change came with the appointment of head chef Himadri Ghosh. He set about tackling the issues raised by patients, including food served at the wrong temperature and incorrect portion sizes.

Public and patient services manager Lisa Kealey said: "What we realised was that there was no specific reason that could explain why we could not change patients' views of the food we offered. There is no such thing as a standard patient, so it should hardly be surprising that there could not be a standard solution."

Branded offering

And that's not the only positive example, as an initiative from facilities management firm OCS Group proves. OCS provides patient catering to 12 UK hospital trusts, including the Ashford and St Peter's Hospitals Foundation NHS Trust. The medium-sized district general hospital works across two sites: St Peter's Hospital in Chertsey, Surrey, and Ashford Hospital in Middlesex. It is the largest provider of acute hospital services in Surrey, serving a population of more than 380,000 people.

OCS first started providing catering services to the trust in April 2006. The contract was re-tendered in 2012, and OCS was successful, winning a five-year deal. The contract includes all in-patient, outpatient, staff and visitor catering and vending services at the two sites.

Chris Ashmore leads the team that developed and implemented OCS's Essential Goodness initiative. The Ashford and St Peter's Hospitals Foundation NHS Trust's aims were was to improve patient catering, adopt a more high-street-branded feel to its food offering, and make patients feel more positive about the experience of being in hospital.

Ashmore says: "We offer catering brands in other sectors, which are very popular with clients, and by adopting that approach in the healthcare sector, I felt that patients would see more value in the meals on offer. The food was already excellent - it was a case of packaging that offer in a more attractive way."

The branding was carried through to the menus, staff uniforms, crockery, cutlery and trolleys. William Britton, hotel services manager at the trust, says: "OCS has taken a high-street restaurant into hospital wards."

It's certain that hospital caterers have taken steps to improve their standards. But have they done enough to change public opinion? 80-year-old Beryl Levy, who was in hospital at the time of the Licolnshire Echo's investigation, was certainly coming round: "Hospital meals are definitely better than they used to be," she said.

NHS Sustainability Day 2016

This year's NHS Sustainability Day will take place on Thursday 24 March. The initiative, which has been running for five years, is a national day of environmental awareness. It was created by Barts Health NHS Trust and is part of a national campaign run by 4 All of Us - a social enterprise supporting communications for the public sector.

Quorn Foods will be working with trusts across the UK to highlight how they can support a more sustainable NHS by making simple swaps on hospital menus. Caterers are being encouraged to switch sausages, minced beef and chicken to Quorn alternatives.

In just two hours last year, Quorn Foods said it saved the NHS 25,000 calories, 150kg of carbon and nearly 10 tonnes of water in each of the hospitals taking part.

The Catering Mark - fuelling staff and patients

A Catering Mark is awarded by the Soil Association to institutions, such as hospitals, nurseries, schools or workplaces, that provide food outside the home. It is an independent endorsement that shows food providers are taking steps to improve the food they serve, that they are using fresh ingredients free from trans fats and harmful additives and that are better for animal welfare.

There are 51 hospital food outlets that hold a Catering Mark in the UK. In November 2014, Catering Mark-awarded hospitals served about 3.5 million meals per year, and that figure has since increased to around 13.5 million meals per year. But Rich Watts, senior catering mark manager at the Soil Association, feels more could be done to ensure hospital staff, as well as patients, are provided with a good, healthy meal. He says: "The question of quality for staff food offerings is more important than ever.

"Ensuring staff have access to healthy, sustainable and ethical food at all times of the day is key to ensuring we have a workforce that can heal the nation. We need to be highlighting the best practice hospitals, such as North Bristol NHS Trust, whose staff restaurant offers good food in an environment removed from patients and relatives, so that doctors and nurses can unwind, discuss vital issues and return re-energised to the ward."

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