The way to a patient’s heart is through…their food tray?

2012-11-30 A Meatball

Nope, that’s not a typo. Saskatchewan patients are 4 (!) times more likely to rate a hospital as 10 out of 10 if they rated the quality of food they were served during their stay as excellent (versus poor, fair, good, or very good).

That, for me, was THE takehome message from a hot-off-the-press report that identifies the top factors influencing patients’ assessment of their hospital stay.

So why IS food such a big deal for people? I sat down with my colleague Ozlem Sari, to get her take on the finding. Ozlem oversaw this research.  She thinks that maybe food is an “experience changer”:  “You are out of your element in a hospital. You are sick, in a strange place, interacting with strangers. Food may be a familiar element. It can make you feel normal.”

We agreed that a lot of our fond memories — of family gatherings, outings with friends, trips — are closely tied to our senses – the sights, the smells, the tastes of those experiences. Maybe there’s something similar going on with hospital meals?

Thankfully, I haven’t had any opportunities to do my own investigative research on food in hospitals – touch wood. So I decided to check in with my mother, who has had a number of surgeries over the past 15 years — most recently this fall.

Her take on the culinary component of her most recent care experience: “The food was as good as I would expect…for a hospital. It was hot. It wasn’t that bad.”  My mother admits she doesn’t have particularly high expectations for hospital food, so she hasn’t been disappointed.  I wondered aloud whether maybe it’s a generational thing. Uh-uh. She figures my father would have higher expectations: what she could live with for a meal, he’d likely complain about (but only to her, mind you, not to hospital staff).

Our conversation was winding down, when it came to her: “It’s because meal times are a major event when you’re in hospital.  When your only breaks are reading and walking the halls, then the arrival of that food at meal times is a BIG DEAL.” She said she chuckled to herself when she heard other patients agonizing over what they should pick for their upcoming snacks and meals. “But when you’re bored, and there’s so little going on, the meals really are a highlight in your day.”

When I did a hallway poll, my Communications colleague Jade Gulash wondered if it goes to the issue of control. In the midst of all the poking and prodding in hospital — which you don’t have much control over — one spot where you do get some choice is on the little card asking what you want to eat at your next meal.

What do you think? Why does food have such a powerful effect on what patients think about their time in hospital? Why does it appear to offer the biggest bang for the buck, when it comes to improvement? And now that we know it does, what do we do about it? The report includes a list of improvement ideas that health regions and facilities can test.

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6 Responses to “The way to a patient’s heart is through…their food tray?”

  1. Anonymous
    December 6, 2012 at 11:07 pm #

    Really, if your food is the biggest complaint about our health care system do patients really know what a great health care system would provide them with?

    • Greg Basky
      Greg Basky
      December 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

      I’m not sure that it’s realistic or fair to expect patients to know whether they are receiving safe, effective care. They don’t have the same level of expertise as the people who organize and deliver care. I bet that many of them just assume we get that technical part right – that’s our job. These survey results are about what patients experience during their time in hospital. They don’t need any particular expertise to rate this aspect of their care. Becoming truly patient centred is all about respecting and acting upon what patients are telling us — that getting food right, and having clean facilities matters to them.

  2. Heather Thiessen
    November 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    Hi Greg.

    Well I have to agree with your mom. I know I have formed bonds with those who deliver food to me while I am in the hospital. When you are in for extended periods of time like I am it is that common theme of “home” by eating and visiting with those who deliver it. It does break up the boredom of the day. I have to say I also appreciate those who clean my room and those who porter me to physio or tests. They see the improvement I make and comment on it too. They have been that other sounding board when I am sad or upset.

    I believe these support services are very important in the hospital setting. They are often forgotten in the whole hospital experience. Without them hospitals would have a hard time running.

    • Greg Basky
      Greg Basky
      November 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

      You make a good point, Heather. There is also the social element to meal times. The human touch that happens in between actual hands-on care is also a big part of the healing process, whether it’s the person serving you your meal, or cleaning your room, or helping “chauffeur” you to treatment or tests. I hope they all see themselves as key members of the care team — that a listening ear or kind word can have a big impact on patients.

  3. Nicole Wohlgemuth
    November 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    Great post Greg! Your Mom has a wonderful point about mealtime breaking up the boredom of a hospital stay. I also noticed within patients comments from the Patient Experience Survey that many people see food as nourishment leading to health; and when they feel that the food they are receiving will not support their return to health, due to the taste, texture, nutritional value, etc. they believe that the hospital is not doing all it can to care for them and return them to good health. Fascinating isn’t it that the hospital experience from the patients point of view encompasses all processes patients go through as contributing to healing, not just processes specific to clinical care?

    • Greg Basky
      Greg Basky
      November 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

      Food as “medicine” – So true, Nikki. Tools like the survey help us see things through the eyes of patients: the care they experience is about much more than just the hands-on stuff delivered by doctors and nurses. We have lots of room to improve here, but we’re moving in the right direction.

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