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A Foodie’s View of Patient Experience: How Hospitals are Upping their Culinary Game

Updated: Jun 20

Tray of cafeteria food and drink

Doubtful we’ll be seeing a reservation listing for Metro Medical Center on Open Table, but some providers realize that food can be a major competitive advantage.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m an obsessive foodie and a chef in my own fantasy world. My expectations for food creativity and quality are admittedly unreasonably high, whether in the staff cafeteria or in a high-end restaurant.

As one who had a 100-day “food experience” as an inpatient, I got to test every form of cuisine, starting with the feeding tube entrees and then back to slowly back to solid foods of various types and qualities. When I was able to eat real food again, I immediately asked my friends and families to send me Door Dash and Grub Hub gift credits rather than magazines and books!

Let’s face it, few foodies will ever be totally satisfied with the selections on trays delivered at the exact second that breakfast, lunch, and dinner are scheduled in the wards. In all fairness, hospitals have come a long way from the variant of Swanson TV Dinners that included Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, peas, and the infamous apple crisp. For others, the evolution has been slow, with innovation related to being able to call for a bad burger on demand rather than on the traditional meal schedule.

But many now realize that healthcare is a business, and not unlike the hospitality business an elevated hospital cuisine can drive new patients, improved satisfaction, and incremental revenues. It can also make hungry hospital staff members very happy.

So what are some providers:

Northwell goes Michelin

Well before the pandemic, New York-based Northwell Health poached Bruno Tilson, the Executive Chef from the legendary Plaza Hotel.

According to Tilson, "I'm going to re-train and re-teach the culinary departments to provide not only the patients but employees with fresh food. We want to keep patients and employees healthy and we want our patients to look forward to a great meal."

I think the employee aspect is very important given the challenge of recruiting and retaining staff in an age of burnout and stress. Keep in mind whereas a patient might have a bad culinary experience over a one-week stay, employees must stand in the cafeteria line 12 months of the year!

Northwell’s initiative was driven by Sven Gierlinger, their Senior Vice President and Chief Experience Officer. This makes complete sense given that Gierlinger began his career in the luxury hotel business, holding a series of leadership positions with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.

Considering that Northwell is the largest healthcare network in New York with 27 hospitals and one of the state’s largest employers, scaling the culinary upgrades is a massive undertaking. Tilson admits, “it hasn’t always been a graceful transition” given the resistance from some of the old school to transform to a “restaurant-driven approach."

Food Delivery Services – Curse or Blessing

One would think that having food delivered from your favorite restaurant would be the dream solution for in-patient culinary challenges. For me, it was, since my hospital was located near a treasure trove of some of the best food establishments in the Boston area. I was living large with $500 of food delivery credits sent from my friends and family to be used at restaurants I couldn’t get a reservation at if I was well.

Despite my euphoria, I had little idea of the strain this put on the hospital staff. Since I needed to do food consumption reports, the nutritionists saw I was going off the rails. Nurses and staff had to take valuable time away from other patients to bring my food up to the room from the lobby delivery area. Hospitals have a variety of rules about leftovers from outside sources, so there was an “eat it or lose it” aspect to every delivery given that I was unable to have family share the meals with me due to visitation restrictions. This problem is further magnified given that many patients' eyes are bigger than their stomachs.

Home Cooking…delivered to your hospital@home

As the hospital@home movement expands there may be the illusion that home cooking is better than hospital food. Well that all depends. Not every household has a nutritionist on staff and just because someone is a good cook it doesn’t mean that the food matches the prescriptive needs of the in-home patient. I’m a great cook but I still panic when I have a dinner guest with vegan or gluten-free needs.

For this reason, there are a growing number of firms that provide diet-specific meals for the hospital@home patient and family. For example, Rfoodx provides health and wellness through natural, earth-made, medically-tailored food products.

Depending on the nutritional restrictions of hospital@home patients, many of the existing meal delivery services like Hello Fresh or Blue Apron will be expanding their services to provide more prescriptive meal offerings to home-based patients based on diet.

FlavorPort Brings Street and Carnival Foods to the Hospital

Since the patient experience is directly related to staff and clinicians, they share many of the same culinary demands as patients. Plus in many cases, families are bringing food to the patient from the cafeteria. Launched in August 2021, FlavorPort brings fun, street food-inspired flavors to hospital cafeterias. Their customers are comprised of savvy hospital staff and visitors. Their offerings give customers the opportunity to get the same kinds of food that they would get if they were visiting a food truck outside of the hospital.

The program is now operating in roughly 60 hospitals nationwide and brings with it rotating culinary themes each week. One of the most popular is a Southwest twist on Taco Tuesdays. The menu features 12 main dishes from which operators can choose, including garlic and shrimp tacos, chipotle rubbed ribs, crispy pork carnitas, stuffed poblano peppers, and roasted pineapple flan.

Another twist is a version that serves nostalgic carnival bites like pulled pork waffle fries, nachos, beef empanadas, and shrimp rolls. Pizzacana, featuring handheld twists on Italian classics like Italian sausage subs, Bahn mi, and Hawaiian dogs.

In-Patient Food Apps

In a world of digital transformation in healthcare, no article would be complete without mention of a food app that can be used within the hospital setting. A new app deployed by Singleton Hospital in Wales where over 1 million patient meals are served each year. Not only does it offer more food options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but the app will also help Swansea Bay University Health Board meet Welsh Government guidelines for food waste reduction.

Riverside Doctors’ Hospital Williamsburg introduced a similar iPhone or Android-based online food ordering service for patients. The app provides much greater detail on the nutritional aspects of each food item and limits ordering to dishes approved as part of the patient's dietetic plan.

CBORD the app developer claims that the platform:

  • Reduces call center volume and bedside assistance

  • Improves patient engagement and satisfaction

  • Increases efficiency for food service and nursing staff

For more insights on Leadership, Patient Experience, Hospital@Home, Burnout, and Equity log into ICD Healthcare Network

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