Last week I visited the brand new £225 million Pembury Hospital, just outside Tunbridge Wells. It’s a genuinely state of the art building, and the country’s first all-single room (512 in all) NHS hospital.
Local MPs and health officials have declared the new hospital “the best in the country” and a model for a more person-centred approach to healthcare and treatment. The whole design is based on aiding patient recovery. As well as patient-controlled room temperature, solar control glass windows and flat screen TVs, each room offers peace and quiet and a view onto rolling Kent countryside.
So far so good.
Unfortunately what greets you on arrival is less impressive. As the sleek glass doors glide open revealing something like the arrivals area of an ultra-modern European airport, there, blazing like a fiery beacon of free-market capitalism (sorry if this is sounding a bit Dave Spart), is a 10 foot long Coca Cola sign. Beneath it sits a veritable wall of Coke, Fanta and Sprite, juxtaposed with grim looking white bread sandwiches, pasties and cheese string.
But this is only the beginning. Once inside the WH Smith at Pembury Hopsital (which plays host to this lamentable display) you find yourself opposite an enormous pick ‘n’ mix display and rack upon rack of M&Ms, Haribo and Butterkist (full on toffee and sugar variety!). In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a bigger concentration of sweets, fizz and junk food in a very long time.
Now, it’s fair to say I didn’t exactly expect to see a health food store or Planet Organic concession at the new hospital. And I understand completely that hospital patients often will be feeling nervous and vulnerable, and therefore especially in need of treats. But this just seems such a completely inappropriate use of a flagship NHS facility — more petrol station forecourt than ‘super hospital’ welcome area.
Of course, the real problem lies deep in the system of hospital funding and the commercial deals struck with the food and retail giants long before the first brick is laid. The effects of this are sometimes shocking. Take as an example a recent report by the food campaign group Sustain, which revealed that two of the four London hospitals it studied spent over 5% of their total food budget on Coca Cola. The long-term and exclusive nature of many of these deals means that local providers of fresh, healthy food and drink are often shut out from the outset.
But one thing must surely be clear to any senior local health trust manager. If you install a giant pick ‘n’ mix stall in your hospital entrance, it’s going to be a whole lot harder to sell NHS initiatives such Living Well, or to take seriously the regular warnings its doctors issue about the growing problems of obesity and diabetes!
By Jim Manson
Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.