Made-to-Order: Revamping Hospital Food

The prevailing sentiment for hospital food is pessimistic. But in describing two facilities just southwest of Los Angeles, Daily Breeze makes an important observation: “If it’s possible, two Torrance hospitals have made a medical stay sound appetizing.” And at several hospitals across the United States, the cuisine rivals that of established hotels and restaurants.

Now, patients have access to fresh and healthy food tailored to their needs. From made-to-order meals and room service to unique menus, the notion of quality hospital food may never again require a caveat.

The Impetus for Change

Patient Experience

For hospitals introducing hotel-like food service, the focus is on the patient experience. By offering benefits such as convenience and quality, hospitals can make a positive impression on patients while still providing the necessary medical treatment.

Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, refers to patient experience when describing its new on-demand meal delivery service: “Studies have shown that when patients can order their meals when they want them, it contributes greatly to their hospital experience.” Phelps has capitalized on the room service idea by ensuring that patients receive meals that meet their dietary needs, and the patient response to the quality and selection has been positive.

Waiter holding a tray of hot food ready to be served

Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance offers menu items that not only “appeal to every palate and dietary specification” but also include “definitions of specific diets (like heart-health) and how to order.” Daily Breeze adds the following: “Beside each menu item, patients see the grams of carbohydrates, a necessity for diabetics or those instructed to count their sugar and carb intake.”

Once patients decide on a meal, they conveniently call in their order. “Traditionally, it’s always been us delivering around our production schedule, when it was convenient for us,” said Tom Harney, director of the hospital’s food and nutrition services. “Now people have the ability to eat when they want to.”

Foodservice Director suggests that “food is often the only thing [patients] can control.” Handing back that control pays dividends for the patient experience and, in turn, the hospital.

Patient Satisfaction Scores

Hospitals have a direct financial incentive to improve their food service programs. If patient satisfaction scores do not reach a certain level, facilities lose withheld Medicare payments and the potential for bonus money.

Starting in 2012, an Affordable Care Act policy instituted that 1 percent of Medicare reimbursements be withheld from hospitals — approximately $850 million, according to The Atlantic. It increased to 1.5 percent for fiscal year 2015 and then will max out at 2 percent for fiscal year 2017, The Advisory Board Company explains.

A hospital is penalized or rewarded based on four domains of care and efficiency standards. Currently, patient satisfaction scores — via the 32-question survey known as the HCAHPS — carry 30 percent weight.

However, these scores are subjective. The Atlantic cites survey complaints that include noisy roommates and food. One patient complained that a hospital did not have Splenda, while another “believed he was mistreated because he didn’t get enough pastrami on his sandwich” following quadruple-bypass surgery.

According to The Advisory Board Company, around half of hospitals receive the Medicare penalty each year, and it expects that hospitals will have a more difficult time doing well in the program. As a result, many hospitals are scrambling to improve these scores, and food is a major target. In a 2014 survey of 136 hospitals from Foodservice Director, 60 percent reported that the Affordable Care Act will “greatly impact” or have “some impact on” their food service department.

Creating a Hotel-Like Experience

Advances in Food and Service

In Watertown, Wisconsin, patients at UW Health Partners’ Watertown Regional Medical Center can choose from locally sourced foods developed from scratch. Foodservice Director lists dishes including oyster mushroom bisque with sherry, tortellini and arugula; hanger steak wrap with bleu cheese and red currant balsamic vinaigrette; and grilled chicken with brussel sprout leaves, red grapes, chickpeas and orange zest.

The revamped menu at Watertown Regional is the vision of Justin Johnson, an executive chef who left a high-end hotel to oversee the hospital’s food service department. His experience, combined with a $3 million renovation, has resulted in a high-quality menu that includes food grown in his team’s own 11,000-square-foot garden. Along with the help of dietitians, Johnson and his team are able to create healthy and tasty dishes.

Rex Hospital, part of the University of North Carolina Health System, is taking similar strides. Kaiser Health News reports that Caribbean grilled chicken salad, orzo salad, banana-nut pancakes, and lime and ginger-glazed salmon are a part of the hospital’s room service menu. According to Chad Lefteris, Rex’s vice president of operations, food service has impacted the facility: “I have no doubt that raising the culinary bar improves our customer satisfaction scores and elevates the overall patient experience.”

Other hospitals are taking the concept of room service to the next level. When patients call in their orders at Phelps, associates often help choose appropriate dishes and offer substitutions based on each person’s diet. At Torrance Memorial Medical Center, nutritional ambassadors visit each patient’s room daily to go over the fresh food offerings.


The hotel-like experience has resulted in better convenience and control for patients. With high-quality, fresh, nutritious food, patients benefit across the board. When specific dietary needs are present, hospitals can easily offer foods that match the patient’s dietary restrictions.

arrow representing the cost of food going down

And at facilities like Wood County Hospital in Bowling Green, Ohio, a team of professional chefs offers more than convenient, five-star food for patients. Foodservice Director mentions that the team allows the hospital to save money on outside catering expenses for special events. Other hospitals have found that lower costs are a well-defined benefit of a revamped food service department.

University Hospital in Columbia, Missouri, saves money by preparing menu items from scratch. According to Kaiser Health News, UNC Healthcare in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, saw food costs fall by $400,000 in the first year of the room service program by avoiding waste. Phelps saw a similar trend, with food waste down 25 percent.

Nursing at Alvernia

Nurses — along with doctors and other medical professionals — can make sure patients receive quality food that meets their dietary needs as hospitals overhaul their food service departments. Nurses who discuss dietary choices with patients can inform and encourage them to develop healthy habits, which should also add to the patient experience.

At Alvernia University, the online RN to BSN completion program helps nurses enhance their careers and pursue leadership positions. The program creates opportunities for nurses to better advocate for their patients, including in areas such as nutrition and their overall hospital experience.

The RN to BSN program is also available on campus.

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