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FSDs Play a Key Role in Their Institutions' Public Relations

Hospital FSDs can have a major impact on how their institutions are perceived by the public.

Hospital FSDs can have a critical impact on the way internal and external publics perceive their institutions.

It is no secret that the continuing consolidation of healthcare institutions is dramatically changing the operating environment in that segment. Yet those of us who follow the segment as a foodservice market tend to overlook the fact that not all of that change is internal.

The creation of ever-larger hospital networks has also become a public relations issue for many healthcare institutions in terms of the relationship they have and can have with their patients and communities.

Hospitals, once closely associated with their communities, are perceived today as big businesses, increasingly impersonal as institutions and dominated by the same cost and profit pressures that drive publicly traded companies. That perception is magnified by the growing control that managed care systems exert over hospital policies, from emergency room admission procedures to the length of maternity and recovery stays.

To use the lingo of marketing management, that often means that a hospital’s "affinity" with its patients and/or customers has deteriorated in comparison to what it was like only a few years ago. "Affinity" is an ad agency term, but it refers to what most people would understand as the "warm fuzzies" a person has (or doesn’t have) for an institution or business.

The unfortunate fact is, there is very little that most patients or visitors find that is warm in most healthcare institutions today. The window dressing is there—a lot less institutional green and a lot more more rainbow-colored murals; Muzak in the reception area and attractive four-color brochures to describe virutally every medical specialty and billable service. But overworked professional staffs, FTE-starved departments and large organization bureaucracies find it very difficult to maintain anything like the "personal touch" that patients and visitors would like to experience.

The fact is, every visitor to a healthcare institution wants to believe that the friend or family member being visited is receiving the best of care. But her or she also psychologically wants to know that the same patient is in the hands of a caring facility, and not just a temporary source of revenue for a large healthcare delivery system.

Obviously, the institutional need to manage such perceptions is a challenge that can affect virtually every part of a healthcare institution. But foodservice operations, with their day-to-day (and daypart-to-daypart) contact with a hospital’s patients, guests and employees, have a unique opportunity to help address such issues.

While a patient perceives his or her physicians and the hospital’s professional staff as representative of the institution’s medical acumen, that same patient sees food and housekeeping services as the "face" of the institution’s hospitality. Foodservice is a defining component of every hospital stay. And the passing of meal trays is a primary contact point between the patient and the hospital’s instutitional "self."

For guests and visitors, the cafeteria remains the primary place of respite from the personal stress that is associated with having a family member or friend in the facility.

For employees, the servery is the place where informal team-building relationships are most likely to be established, the place where employees are free to express the personal (as opposed to the professional) sides of their personalities, and a place to let off the steam that builds up daily in the pressure-cooker environment in which they work.

Needless to say, such observations can bejust as true in extended care facilities, where residents and patients see mealtimes as the central social activities of the day.

Getting back to my original point, it’s clear that FSDs and foodservices can have a critical impact on the way internal and external publics perceive healthcare institutions. Is your institution a large, impersonal and profit-focused business? Or a caring, people-centered, community service-provider?

Find ways to effectively communicate to administrators your department’s role in supporting the latter image rather than the former, and you will have given them a major reason to support the direction in which you want to take your operation.

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