When Lauren Heath learned she had to spend an extra day in Rex Hospital in Raleigh, N.C., after delivering her baby girl in May, she wasn’t complaining.
“It means I get three more, really good meals,” said Heath, 29, of Wake Forest, N.C. “The food is amazing.”
Instead of mystery meat and Jell-O, she enjoyed banana-nut pancakes, Caribbean grilled chicken salad, Philly-style cheesesteaks, orzo salad and baked potato wedges. With an extra day’s stay, she was looking forward to trying the hospital’s lime and ginger-glazed salmon. The food was so good that even her out-of-town mom decided to have her meals brought from the hospital cafeteria.
Rex, part of the University of North Carolina Health System, is one of a growing number of hospitals nationwide that are tossing out their fryers and adopting hotel-style “room service” where patients can order food anytime from a large menu.
Joshua Fels, executive director of culinary services of Del E. Webb Medical Center in Sun City West, said the hotel-style room service has made hospital food service flourish.
“We moved away from the standard of what people think hospital food is to what the patients want — and when they want to eat it,” Fels said.
Fels said Del E. Webb offers full service for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And his staff guarantees delivery in 45 minutes of when patients order food.
“There is a much wider variety of choices, and it’s similar to ordering a meal at a resort, hotel or restaurant where your item isn’t prepared until you order it,” Fels said.
In addition, Fels said Del E. Webb prides itself for having improved food service in its medical center cafe.
“We’ve grown the cafe from more than just a staff dining room into a place where staff, volunteers, visitors and the surrounding communities all come to eat,” he said.
Last year, the cafe generated more than $1.7 million in dining revenue, which is on par with many restaurant chains, according to Fels.
“There are so many features in hospital cafes now,” he said. “We have a full selection of salad bars, demonstration-style cooking where you can see your food prepared. There are no frozen dinners here, and everything is prepared on site.”
Administrators say the focus on food has taken on extra importance since Medicare last year began paying them based partly on their patient satisfaction scores, a change that is part of the federal health care law known as Obamacare.
“Food service helps the overall experience,” said Jim McGrody, director of food and nutrition at Rex in Raleigh, as he inspected his kitchen cold room used for brining pickles, curing turkey pastrami and fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut. Several letters of praise from former patients hang in the kitchen.
While Medicare’s surveys do not ask about food, Rex administrators believe their culinary efforts help explain their better-than-average overall satisfaction rates. About 84 percent of Rex patients surveyed said they would recommend the hospital, compared to 71 percent nationally.
“I have no doubt that raising the culinary bar improves our customer satisfaction scores and elevates the overall patient experience,” said Chad T. Lefteris, vice president of operations at Rex.
Food management companies that specialize in health care facilities say they are getting more requests from hospitals looking to boost their satisfaction scores for Medicare.
“Health care reform is pushing a lot of these changes,” said Richard Schenkel, CEO of Unidine, a Boston-based company that manages food service at 20 hospitals. “There is a belief that when you have horrible food, it affects your patient satisfaction scores,” he said. “Patients remember their food. … It’s the one thing that comes to them three times a day.”
The economics are hard to resist, say food service consultants. Hospitals can save thousands of dollars a year just from reduced waste by letting patients order meals room-service style. At the same time, better quality boosts business for on-site cafeterias. And better food can also help a hospital attract more patients by improving its image, said Bill Klein, CEO of DM&A, a California consulting firm.
The trend has meant that hospital food has become a specialty of its own — complete with its own version of “Iron Chef.”
Rex won the top prize in last year’s culinary competition, sponsored by the Association of Healthcare Food Service. Five hospitals competed in June in New Orleans to make a dish under tight nutritional guidelines that cost under $7 to produce. The 2013 winner was Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare in Illinois.
Hospitals are also offering more choices to their patients. UNC Healthcare in Chapel Hill, N.C., offers a 20-page menu that looks like something you would see at Cheesecake Factory.
Patients can choose from standard fare such as cereal and eggs, as well as items such as gourmet burritos, red wine-marinated London broil with au jus and chicken Penang. The hospital has even created its own brands: Chinese selections are called Red Ginger; burritos are sold under the name Bandaleros; chicken and barbecue items fall under Carolina Chicken Co.