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Grab-and-go meals have replaced self-serve options; they also encourage consumption at remote locations across the hospital.

Coronavirus-spurred streamlining will outlast pandemic at Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital

Leaner operations, including cutting patient room service, have helped contain costs and potential contamination.

The coronavirus pandemic has altered the food service landscape at Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital. No more self-serve stations. No more room service–style patient menus. And no more cash.

Those changes are likely to outlast COVID, says Mark Galvin, director of nutrition services for the 650-bed hospital.

Many healthcare facilities, under pressure to adapt to the demands of COVID, have pivoted in similar ways. For Galvin, the tweaks have streamlined operations, complied with efforts to contain virus exposure and helped him grapple with a budget hit hard by the elimination of visitor traffic.

A big shift for the hospital was the elimination of a restaurant-style menu for patients in favor of standardized meals. Special diets are still accommodated, and an “always available” menu is available for patients who aren’t on board with the daily set meals. But limited meal choices have allowed the hospital to do more with a leaner staff and inventory.

“We’ve seen very little pushback from patients,” Galvin says, adding that he thinks room service is overrated.

“Nobody thinks they’re going to get a gourmet meal when they’re in the hospital. They want to get well and go home,” he observes.

COVID has also changed the delivery process for some meals. For COVID-infected patients in isolation, the nutrition services team delivers food in disposable microwaveable containers, which nurses then deliver, after heating them in microwave ovens—a new fixture on patient floors. Galvin says the equipment investment was worth it to ensure patient satisfaction.

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Once a coffee shop, a retail location has been retrofitted to sell staples and takeout meals.

On the retail side, volume has dropped by about 40% since visitors were barred from entering the hospital last spring. Operations had to be adjusted not only to reflect the lower volume but also to minimize the risk of contamination. The usual strategies—eliminating seating, packaging meals for grab and go, having staff serve meals instead of offering food bars—were adopted.

The hospital removed soda dispensers before the pandemic, as part of an effort to discourage excessive sugar consumption. The coffee dispenser and iced tea urns that remain have touchless filling capability, with no refills allowed to cut down on contact.

At night, the cafeteria is disinfected by a bleach misting machine.

Several changes were designed to help out time-strapped employees. Early into the pandemic, the hospital cafeteria started stocking hard-to-find paper products, cleaning supplies and a few other staples. Disposable diapers were recently added to the mix.

Demand has been strong. “One nurse said that when she saw we had supplies, she started crying,” Galvin says.

Ready-to-go $20 family dinners—an entrée, two sides and rolls for a family of four—were offered. More comfort foods were added to the cafeteria selections as well.

“The average hospital employee works a 12-hour shift,” Galvin says. “Anything we can do to de-stress the work/family balance, we do.”

Cashless operations, growing in popularity among food service organizations in recent years, became the norm at Piedmont last year as well. With no visitors, and employees able to use their badges to pay for purchases, the switch has been relatively seamless.

“We probably will never go back to cash again,” Galvin says. “It takes a lot of time, and there is a lot of liability with it. It allowed us to be more efficient and reduce a staff member who was counting money.”

A system to accommodate orders is in the works; meanwhile, employees can pick up pre-plated microwaveable meals—protein, starch and vegetable—that they can take back to their unit or to one of the makeshift break rooms have been set up throughout the facility.

Additional business units at Piedmont shifted gears to accommodate COVID. An on-site Starbucks unit opened last year in an under-construction new tower, killing business for Piedmont’s coffee shop. The space took on a new life as a source for grab-and-go microwaveable meals, cleaning supplies and other household items, all offered from 7 p.m. (when the cafeteria closes) until 2:30 a.m. Internal catering has also been curtailed during the pandemic, since retirement parties and business gatherings have been put on hold. That has fueled significant labor savings for Galvin’s department.

To provide for the night shift, Piedmont has partnered with Fooda, which organizes restaurant popups in the now-disused lobby. Food is sold from 10 p.m. until midnight. Fooda handles the logistics; the hospital simply provides the space. “This has been a huge hit,” Galvin says.

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