Hospitals cater to patients with afternoon tea, sushi, London broil

Better food is the latest example of a trend -- sometimes called "amenity wars" -- among hospitals across the country.

When Angelo Mojica took over food service seven years ago at the University of North Carolina hospitals, the number of patients satisfied with their meals was 11 percent.

Mojica has since transformed the hospitals' food. He opened a Starbucks and developed 20 different restaurant concepts inside the food courts throughout the hospitals. Now patients order off a 20-page menu featuring 90 dishes from any of those "restaurants," such as green beef curry or a carnitas burrito.

As a result, a private survey commissioned by the hospital now shows 99 percent of patients are satisfied with their meals.

Mojica claims this restaurant-delivery model of hospital food service is the first of its kind in the country. He's just begun consulting with a hospital system in California about how they can adapt the system.

Hospitals are competing for patients and so are offering better food, valet parking and even day spa services. Another reason hospitals are trying to offer a better patient experience is that the Affordable Care Act requires a patient satisfaction survey.

A hospital's public survey results are tied to 1 percent of its Medicare reimbursement. It's unclear how much food influences those survey results since patients aren't asked a specific question about food. Instead, they are asked about the friendliness of the staff, cleanliness of the facility, noise level and general questions about customer service. But food service managers at several North Carolina hospitals cited the Medicare reimbursement as a reason to improve their hospital's food.

The old hospital food service model was that all patients got the same meal, adjusted to their dietary restrictions, three times a day. The next iteration allowed patients to order off a menu a day ahead but the food was still delivered at the same time every day. Both models could waste a lot of food if patients didn't like what they were served or the food came when a patient wasn't in the room.

As a result, many hospitals are moving toward a room-service style model where patients order what they want to eat when they want to eat it. UNC has taken it a step further with its restaurant-delivery model, offering dozens of menu options whenever patients want to eat.

Hospitals are continuing to up their game when it comes to food for patients, visitors and staff. Rex Hospital in Raleigh, N.C., offers afternoon tea to patients with bedside delivery of chocolate-dipped strawberries, scones and an assortment of teas. And Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., will transition to a room-service style model after a $15 million renovation to its kitchens next summer, said Ed Chan, the hospital's general manager for food services.

Mojica explained that for years he had been asking his superiors for two dozen more employees to move patient food service to a room-service style model. At the same time, he was developing all these retail concepts offering sushi, breakfast sandwiches, paninis, smoothies and more. He and his staff figured out that they could add nine employees to staff a call center and start offering what was being served on the retail side to patients. All the retail food is cooked in satellite kitchens around the hospitals.

"You would have 15 to 18 maximum entrees for room service programs," Mojica said. "We have 90 entrees."

Plus, food costs dropped 5 percent since the program launched in April, an annual savings of about $300,000. And the private survey commissioned by the hospital shows patient satisfaction with the food jumped from the low 80s to 99 percent.

Dave MacDougall of Fayetteville, N.C., had an eight-day hospital stay earlier this month after hurting his head and wrist in a fall. MacDougall said he never ordered the same thing to eat twice. Instead, he opted to explore the menus, enjoying a red wine-marinated London broil with au jus one day, an orange-glazed pork tenderloin on another day, and French toast, pancakes and an omelet for breakfasts.

"You always hear people saying how horrible hospital food is," MacDougall said. "This was much more like staying at a high-class hotel."

(Reach reporter Andrea Weigl at aweigl@newsobserver.com.)

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