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. Many are also setting up gardens to grow their own vegetables, inviting local farmers to sell produce in their lobbies and turning food presentations into works of art -- even when made puree style.
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, 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.