Patients and families’ anxiety levels being raised unnecessarily

It is important to bring some balance to the discussion around Dunedin Hospital's meals, Southern District Health Board chief executive Carole Heatly writes.

A coalition of political groups has called upon the people of Dunedin to protest the food being served at Dunedin Hospital, and for the SDHB to exit its partnership with its contracted provider Compass.

In the midst of the noise around this issue, misunderstandings and misinformation have developed which I would like to address.

Firstly, to our patients who have not enjoyed their food at the DHB, we hear your concerns and are committed to addressing them. We are also concerned for another group of people, whose voices have been less publicly heard.

These are our patients and families, already facing the health worries that have brought them to us, whose anxiety levels are being raised unnecessarily.

The impact of this hit home for me when I received this email from the wife of a gentleman in our care: ‘‘As his next of kin I felt incredibly stressed by the prospect of meals that were depicted on social media as being inedible . . . however it tasted absolutely fine, and there was plenty of it . . . I wonder if those people who are so stridently and publicly rejecting the meals are aware of how much additional stress all this dissatisfaction is placing upon the recipients of the meals and their families.''

It is for these people that it is important to bring some balance to this discussion.

Those organising the protest oppose the outsourcing decision on principle, calling for jobs to stay local.

Southern DHB employs 4500 staff, and is the largest employer in the district - we are certainly doing our bit for local employment. Compass also employs more than 120 staff across the DHB, and spends about $6million per year with Otago and Southland-based companies, supplying not only Dunedin but their nationwide contract.

But creating jobs is not our main responsibility. Our task is to produce the greatest health outcomes within our resources. We need to make decisions that will enable this. It is not reasonable to generate stress among patients to serve a political perspective that hospitals should run their own kitchens.

For others, concern relates more specifically to the quality of the food. This I understand. We are a health care provider. The food our patients are served needs to be of a good quality and help them get well.

Certainly some patients have told us their experiences of food have not been good. However, Compass' survey suggests most patients are satisfied. I can honestly say that the meals I have tasted have been of a good standard.

Despite what some people refuse to believe, the meals provided to Minister [Jonathan] Coleman and presented to the media have been the genuine article.

Some negative sentiment has been fuelled by images that lack context, such as having been prepared for people on special diets, or with swallowing difficulties.

One post of a kebab, for example, included a claim that their dog or cat wouldn't eat it, but failed to mention that it was a vegetarian/ vegan option, and the strange-looking ‘‘meat'' was nut meat. Cats don't eat nuts.

It is also not clear why dissatisfaction seems greater at Southern DHB than the four other DHBs where Compass provides meals under the same system.

There is also the idea that the meals are ‘‘trucked frozen from Auckland'' and by definition lower quality. Again, there is considerable misunderstanding about this.

Previously, it was common to use frozen ingredients transported from elsewhere in New Zealand. We would also prepare bulk batches of meal bases in advance, and reheat them for later use in our Dunedin, Wakari and Southland hospitals.

Similarly, not all aspects of the meals now are pre-prepared. About two-thirds of fruit and vegetables on the menu are fresh, using seasonal, locally grown produce where possible.

The public may also not be aware that, in terms of our contract with Compass, the period until March 31 was a ‘‘transitional phase'', during which time numerous changes and improvements were made in response to feedback.

From April 1, formal performance monitoring begins, and Compass is very aware of our expectations for it to deliver a service that meets the needs of our patients.

Patients, please help us by providing feedback to staff. If the meal is wrong, or you are unhappy with it, please let the team at Compass fix it.

To those who are concerned about what your experiences may be like as patients, please be in touch, and hopefully we can alleviate your concerns.

And to those protesting, picking out specific examples of ‘‘poor'' meals and asserting that represents all meals is not a valid assessment of whether Compass is meeting its obligations.

Worse is when this is being used to argue a different agenda, about outsourcing. And worse still is where this creates anxiety among those who need our services.

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