Patient Satisfaction by way of Stomach?

Posted on March 4, 2012


Hospital food has a reputation somewhat akin to airline food—more joke-worthy than praiseworthy. Some hospitals are aiming to change that, the Wall Street Journal reports in “New Hospital Cuisine: Dishes Made to Order”.

I found this article pertinent for a few reasons. First, at least one hospital noted the cost of local, fresh, even organic ingredients and made-to-order dishes is negligible compared to current food production, which makes it sound like improved food at most hospitals is affordable. Second, it reinforces the notion of healthcare’s migration toward hospitality (‘hotel or restaurant quality’). Third, meals and appetite can be very dependent on diagnosis and treatment modes. Fourth, meals at a hospital are like decor: you don’t want it to be so good visitors question the expense, yet not so poor it sticks out as a memorably bad.

From a design standpoint, I have been involved with some healthcare kitchen designs but the layout has little to do with the quality of the product. To me, cuisine in a hospital is similar to that in a hotel; you have room service or the in-house restaurant. In a hospital, you have the food for patients (room service) or the cafeteria (restaurant). Many hospitals have upgraded their cafeteria designs and food offerings because they can be revenue-enhancers when more employees and visitors eat there, while the food prep side for patients has always been more utilitarian. The more utlititarian side has been the focus of outsourcing and consolidation off-site by more than a few hospials I have spoken with lately.

The reader commentary in the WSJ article is notable because opinions differ greatly. Some would rather have food money invested in new technology like a CT scanner, while others feel good food comforts and humanizes the hospital experience. My wife spent some time in the hospital last year for a surgery and meals were one of the highlights to her otherwise immobile and boring day. Though I must admit, nothing came her way that looked appealing to me.

Maybe the most promising point in the article was the notion that some hospitals are not doing a blanket mealtime distribution of food, but cooking on an as-needed basis. This was one thing that drove me crazy about my wife’s hospital stay. Food was brought whether she was hungry or not, and you put your order in the night before—even if you had no idea what would be appealing the next day. On-demand food service reduces the need to cook for an entire hospital population within a couple hours. And, it reduces a tremendous amount of waste—food, energy and water, cleaning, distribution—always a good thing.

Several of the hospitals noted in the article are well-known and well-funded organizations, so this may be an early trend that is far from mature or well-defined. I am interested to see the outcome.