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Data: Surprising factors in how patients perceive hospital meals

It’s not just about the food: Study finds service-related elements such as order accuracy, timeliness of delivery and courtesy of staff greatly impact patients’ perceptions of the overall quality of their food experience.

Ironically, low expectations about hospital food leads patients to focus on other parts of the foodservice experience, which weigh heavily on the overall feeling of satisfaction with the food.

That’s what’s suggested by findings in a new report conducted by Press Ganey Consulting and Compass One Healthcare, “Food for Thought: Maximizing the Positive Impact Food Can Have on a Patient’s Stay,” in which 9,734 respondents over a three-year period from 2014 to 2016.

Researchers found “that patients know hospital food isn’t going to be that great…they expect it,” James Merlino, MD, president and CEO of Press Ganey’s Strategic Consulting division, said in a press release.

While most of today’s healthcare foodservice professionals may take umbrage with that statement—taking pride in their flavors, presentation, creativity and overall quality of food—nevertheless, the way service-related expectations play into patients’ overall perceptions of the food is worth a look.

Compass One Healthcare CEO Bobby Kutteh sums up the finding another way:

“We invest heavily in training and our people know that how they serve the food is as important as what they are serving,” Kutteh says. “It’s all about the experience.”

When patients’ baseline expectations on ordering and delivery were met, they were far more likely to give optimal ratings for food quality, compared to patients whose expectations were not met in terms of ordering and delivery. Here’s more of what the study revealed about timeliness, speed, staff teamwork and room service:

Your food is nothing without accuracy
According to the study, those who were pleased with the accuracy of their patient meal orders were more likely to also rate the food as great (64 percent of the time). In contrast, when the accuracy of the meal was messed up, patients rarely rated the food as good (10 percent of the time).

Better be on time
Timeliness factored heavily in patients’ perception of the food as well, with “patients reporting significant frustration when meals are delivered late, often associating delays with incorrect or unappealing food temperature, whether the delay actually was the cause of temperature variance or not,” according to the report.

Timeliness and health outcomes
Additionally, being on time was “especially important for some patients, including those who are required to eat on a regular, predictable schedule,” according to the report. “In fact, for diabetic and bariatric surgery patients, timeliness could impact clinical quality and outcomes.”

Staff should work as a team
One question on the Press Ganey inpatient survey asks the patient: “How well did the staff work together as a team to care for you?” A positive relationship between foodservice and nursing staff—or lack thereof—does show. For example, menu changes or process changes should be communicated clearly between the two groups, the study recommends.

Pay attention for special diets
The study found that patients on a restricted diet appreciate getting a menu that only shows them things they can have. Makes sense, but there’s more. When foodservice partners with dietitians to explain the “whys” of special diets, that was found to diminish disappointment with patients. When patients rated the explanation of their special diet as “very poor,” they rated their food lower. When patients rated the explanation as “very good,” the quality of food score went up by 15 points on average. a

Room service may not be best for all patients
While patients appreciate the convenience of room service, not all patients like it better, including patients with cognitive deficiencies. A hybrid model of traditional ordering and room service seems to work for some hospitals.

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